The Common Good
July 2007

Just Trust the President?

by William Cavanaugh | July 2007

History does not tend to be kind to Christian theologians who demand war.



In a New York Times article titled "A Catholic Debate Mounts on the Meaning of ...

History does not tend to be kind to Christian theologians who demand war.

In a New York Times article titled "A Catholic Debate Mounts on the Meaning of 'Just War'" published in April, Peter Steinfels called attention to a contemporary history lesson drawn in an ongoing debate between Catholic neo-cons who have supported the Iraq war and the popes and bishops who have not. In the April issue of First Things, George Weigel revisits his arguments for the justice and necessity of the Iraq war and refuses to admit regret. Weigel instead casts blame for the failures in Iraq in two directions: the U.S. foreign policy community which failed adequately to plan for the war's aftermath, and the Arab Islamic political culture whose "irresponsibility, authoritarian brutality, rage, and self-delusion" has caused them to refuse "the foreigner's gift" of political freedom that we have brought them. (I'm not making that up.)

The history lesson is delivered in a commentary titled "Bishops and Their Critics," by the editors of Commonweal magazine, who remind their readers of Weigel's original well-publicized arguments in favor of the invasion back in 2003. They focus on one key point: In the face of vociferous objections to the impending war by the pope and the U.S. bishops, Weigel argued that Catholics should defer to the president's judgment on whether or not this war, or any war, met the just war criteria.

Weigel's argument on this point was two-fold: 1) the president has access to privileged information, and 2) the president, by virtue of his office, exercises a "charism of political discernment" not shared by leaders of the church. The Commonweal editorial wonders whether all the mistakes that Weigel points to in his recent article undermine his claim of the special charism enjoyed by the president. Commonweal remarks that, in retrospect, the Catholic bishops' charism in matters of war and peace looks pretty darn good compared to that of the president.

Weigel's argument here is self-defeating. In the case of the Iraq war, the more he insists on point number one, then the more point two is proven false. If the president did indeed have access to privileged information, then he either misinterpreted that information or deliberately lied about it to make a case for the war. This conclusion seems inescapable, given what we now know about how pre-war intelligence was handled.

REGARDLESS OF THE facts of this particular case, moral judgments about war, like all moral judgments, are not primarily a matter of good information. Good information is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for sound moral judgments. Sound moral judgments depend on being formed in certain virtues. Why a Christian should assume that the president of a secular nation-state would be so formed—much less enjoy a certain "charism" of moral judgment—is a mystery to me. "Charism" is a theological term denoting a gift of the Holy Spirit. To apply such a term to whomever the electoral process of a secular nation-state happens to cough up does not strike me as theologically sound or practically wise.

The fundamental issue here is of much greater importance than arguments about the justice (or lack thereof) of this particular war. Weigel would have the church effectively abdicate its moral judgment in matters of war to the leaders of the nation-state. It is hard to imagine what could do greater damage to both church and nation.

If the church does not have an independent process of discernment to bring the gospel to bear on matters of war and peace, then any hope that the Prince of Peace will be heard over the din of self-interest and fear will be lost. History is already littered with the wreckage caused by Christian capitulation to reasons of state.

William Cavanaugh is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and author of Theopolitical Imagination and Torture and Eucharist.

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