Andrew Sullivan needs to brush up on his theology

For reasons that are not too terribly difficult to grasp, Sullivan is eager to find examples of cafeteria Catholicism among the ranks of theocons like George Weigel. It makes his own selectivity about other aspects of Catholic teaching more palatable, after all.

Sullivan writes:

THEOCONS VERSUS THE CHURCH: I tend to agree with this essay by George Weigel, defending war against Iraq within the Catholic Church’s just war tradition. He even argues that some clerics may not be the best candidates for figuring out questions of public morality:

There is a charism or gift of political discernment unique to the vocation of public service. That charism is not shared by bishops, moderators, rabbis, imams or inter-religious agencies. Moral clarity in a time of war demands moral seriousness from public officials. It also demands a measure of political modesty from religious leaders and public intellectuals, in the give-and-take of democratic deliberation.

Couldn’t agree more. But isn’t this a pretty flagrant dissent from Church teaching? And isn’t Weigel one of the key intellectual supporters of enforcing Church orthodoxy on everyone, especially in the academy, who dare to question official Church teachings? That’s one of my beefs with the theocons. They want strict orthodoxy on practical issues that have no deep moral meaning, like a celibate priesthood, but feel free to dissent openly on war, economics and social justice. Am I the only one to find their position just a little bit too easy?

Um, no, Andrew. I’m afraid you’ve got it wrong. From the teaching of Paul in Romans 13, which fully grants Caesar the power to use the sword within his proper sphere and the right to discern when to use it, to the present Catechism, Church teaching concedes to Caesar the right and duty to order society for the common good and an authority proper to him and not derived from the bishops. This does not mean he can, like Stalin, do whatever he likes since the Pope has no divisions. But it does mean that it is normatively up to Caesar to make the judgement call when a war is not clearly an immoral act. The bishops have not, contrary to what you say, issued any “official Church teachings” on war with Iraq. They have presented what amounts to their collective opinion, along with a big fat caveat that clearly and explicitly says, “We offer not definitive conclusions, but rather our serious concerns and questions in the hope of helping all of us to reach sound moral judgments. People of good will may differ on how to apply just war norms in particular cases, especially when events are moving rapidly and the facts are not altogether clear.”

In short, the bishops are giving doctrine only insofar as they are saying, “Here are the tools called ‘Just War theory’ which the Church provides us with (CCC 2309). After this, they then use those tools to do their own bit of cogitating on this particular circumstance of the proposed war with Iraq. They say, in effect, “We don’t think the case for war is all that great.” But then, they make extremely clear that they are not binding anybody’s conscience, and are merely giving their opinion which Catholics of good will can differ on, depending on their reading of the facts on the ground in light of the Church’s tradition of Just War theory. This is precisely what Weigel does–and he too acknowledges that Catholics of good will can evaluate things differently using the conceptual tools provided by the Church’s Just War Tradition.

This is not cafeteria Catholicism. Nobody on either side is saying “Screw Just War theory! Let’s launch an aggressive war without provocation! Let’s target civilians! Let’s reduce Iraq to a vast plain of glass if they shoot down a single drone!” In order for your argument the Weigel is ignoring “official Church teaching” to really hold water, you would have to show, not that Weigel reads the situation differently in light of the same Church teaching as the bishops (which the bishops themselves acknowledge is completely legitimate for him to do) but that Weigel is saying “To hell with Just War theory.”


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