By Leon Suprenant | May 16, 2008
If you could be “Pope for a day”–assuming the Holy Spirit went along with it–what would you do?
I’ve listened to many people discuss this question through the years. All of the comments I’ve heard have dealt with some aspect of Church discipline. Normative or “orthodox” Catholics tend to want to “clean house”–from excommunicating wayward politicians and theologians to taking a harder line with respect to clerical sex abuse, homosexuality, and problematic seminaries. Dissident Catholics, meanwhile, want to change the disciplines and even some doctrines (the Holy Spirit would have to intervene at this point) to accommodate their agendas.
I take a different approach to this question. I look at it more from the standpoint of Church teaching. Let me explain.
Since Vatican II we haven’t had a shortage of magisterial documents. Pope John Paul II was especially prolific when it came to cranking out encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, and the like, and Popes Paul VI and Benedict XVI aren’t slouches either. Many crucial areas of the Church’s life have been treated extensively over the past 50 years, from the “Gospel of Life” and bioethical issues to evangelization and catechesis, from the Eucharist and the Lord’s Day to the lay vocation as well as consecrated life. The list goes on, and in many of these areas Catholic practice lags behind the teaching. But at least the teaching is there.
There are two areas of the Church’s life that I think would benefit from further magisterial clarification: Scripture and war.
Of the two, if I’m Pope for just a day, I’d focus on the topic of war and defer the consideration of Scripture. After all, the upcoming Synod of Bishops will focus its attention on the topic of Scripture, which surely will lead to an apostolic exhortation by Pope Benedict XVI that will synthesize the discussions and add his own personal insight. So, we can expect some assistance fairly soon in that area. But what about war?
Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World(Gaudium et Spes) discusses war, and Church teaching on war, including the traditional “just war” theory, is summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2307-17. Yet, I think some questions remain, while others have emerged. Here is a random sampling:
(1) A pressing question that immediately comes to mind is the whole concept of a defensive preemptive strike. I think it’s a stretch to consider a preemptive strike ”defensive,” but at the same time in today’s world if one waits for an overt attack before defending oneself, it can already be too late. Clearly that’s a delicate, crucially important question on which Catholic minds differ.
(2) Our country was founded following a bloody revolution. But what about helping others? According to St. Thomas Aquinas, tyrannicide that is otherwise justifiable (i.e., when undertaken by the citizenry itself) is not to be aided or abetted by any outside forces. At the same time, coming to the defense of those who are being oppressed, tortured, and killed is morally permissible and in some cases may even be a grave duty (see Catechism, no. 2265). But coming to the defense of the oppressed may mean the removal from power of the oppressor. So my question would be whether it is ever morally justified to assist an oppressed people in achieving a “regime change.” And if so, under what circumstances? There are many “hard cases” in the world today, involving much more than mere “taxation without representation.”
(3) Is the general question of whether a particular war is “just”—both in terms of entering a war and the way one wages war—necessarily subject to an objective determination, or is it a determination in which people can apply the relevant principles and come up with different, morally acceptable answers?
(4) Doesn’t the application of the principles depend on one’s knowledge of the facts? In that case, doesn’t the Church leave the ultimate decision in these matters to civil authorities, who presumably are privy to more pertinent information than Church officials or Joe Sixpack? In other words, is any deference owed to the head of state in this matter, or does each citizen independently decide for himself or herself whether a war is just and therefore one that should be supported?
(5) There is a crucial difference between principles and prudential judgments. Of course, the “principles” we’re talking about here are the “just war” principles, which would rule out an a priori rejection of all war (the pacifist position) in favor of a prudential application of the principles. Yet, in practice this distinction is often either blurred or ignored. Further, much of the Catechism’s section on war is based on the second half of Gaudium et Spes, and its magisterial “note” is dependent on the weight one is to give the second half of that conciliar document. I don’t at all dispute the teaching of the second half of Gaudium et Spes, but it’s nonetheless true that the second half of the document (according to its own initial footnote) is a pastoral application, containing “transitory” principles and “changeable circumstances.” I’m not making a case here that Vatican II is merely a “pastoral council,” which is the tired, baseless argument used by traditionalist opponents of the Council. But I am saying that modern warfare has dramatically changed over the past 40 years, just as the bioethical landscape has changed. As President Bush said when the “war on terror” began, this is a new kind of war. Rather than view the matter in merely political or emotional terms, we need to be equipped to assess it from a moral perspective, from the standpoint of the beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
(6) Much is made of the last two Popes’ alleged “prudential judgment” that the war is a “morally unjust war of aggression.” I’ve seen statements strongly urging peace, restraint, concern for civilians, and the like, but it’s been my impression that some Catholics (especially those who have already made up their own minds regarding the immorality of the war–often on political or emotional grounds) have overstated what the Popes have actually said about this.
(7) I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary on WWII with my older kids. It was very interesting and generally well done. One thing that really struck me about the Asian theater is that the entire Japanese citizenry considered themselves combatants, and if Japan were invaded all men, women, and children were ostensibly committed to fighting to the end, with even more horrific casualty numbers than was created by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All people of goodwill find it abhorrent to bring average citizens into war—especially disgusting is the terrorists’ ploy of using citizens as a type of shield, realizing that most civilized people who aren’t suicide bombers will be deterred by such tactics. But my question, and simply a theoretical one, is that if the citizenry (or “inhabitants”) in fact are combatants, wouldn’t that affect the application of just war principles in that situation? We still might not have trouble condemning the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki over a half century ago, but we live in an age where the distinction between soldier and civilian, between battlefield and community, is less pronounced than in the past, and all this somehow needs to be taken into account.
Well, maybe if you’re the Pope for a day you might be satisfied to eliminate a liturgical abuse here or silence a heretic there. As for me, however, I think the issue of war and peace is a life-and-death matter worthy of Catholics’ deeper, less-politicized consideration.