A puzzled Episcopalian writes

I am a regular reader of your blog, and one thing has puzzled me. I am curious about things Catholic, being an Episcopalian who is seriously considering jumping the Anglican ship and swimming the Tiber. One of my sticking points, however, is the authority of the Pope. Now, at college I was part of a debating society (the same one as Eve Tushnet, actually) that had a large conservative Catholic contingent. They essentially told me that the Pope’s purpose was, among other things, to make declarations on moral principles and that Catholics were bound in obedience to either follow the Pope’s declarations or be in error. Seeing how you talk about the Pope’s declaration that all Catholic politicians should vote against abortion, as well as their, shall we say, less than stellar response, I gather that you would agree with that assessment.

Here’s what puzzles me. In the very same declaration where he said that Catholic politicians must vote against abortion, he also said they must vote against a war in Iraq. In fact, the Pope seems to have consistently condemned the military actions that the president is proposing. Now, personally I mournfully think that war may be necessary. However, cheering the Pope on his condemnation of abortion and condemning those who disagree or disobey, and then seemingly turning around and disregarding the Pope’s stance on the war in Iraq seems at best contradictory. At worse it would appear that you (and the many Catholics like you who do likewise) are only willing to follow the moral lead of the Pope when it fits your pre-determined beliefs. Could you clarify? What is the difference between the Pope’s opposition to abortion and his opposition to war? And why does this difference (if there is one) mean you need to follow one but not the other?

Information is flying out of the Vatican fast and furious these days and I don’t always keep up. I’m not sure which document you are referring to which calls upon politicians to both vote against abortion and against war with Iraq (maybe a reader could provide a link?).

At any rate, the basic distinction here is that, in Catholic teaching, there are things which are intrinsically immoral (such as the deliberate taking of innocent human life in abortion). The Pope makes a solemn magisterial declaration in Evangelium Vitae (a formal teaching document of the Church): “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder”. As such, there is no way that the state can supercede the law of God articulated in the commandment “You shall not kill”. As John Paul says (again in EV): “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”

Now John Paul does not say anything equivalent about war in EV. Certainly some wars are unjust. But war is not always and everywhere intrinsically immoral, which is why the Church has such a thing as Just War theory. Just War theory is not an infallible moral calculus which guarantees that all faithful Catholics will inevitably arrive at the same conclusion. It is a tool for trying to make moral judgments informed by the Tradition. As such, the Church’s magisterium does not bind the conscience in the same way. In essence, it urges us to try our best to think in light of the Tradition, but does not spell out for us the specifics of what we may or may not do.

You can see this principle at work in the document issued by the American bishops, who share JPII’s reservations about war, but who specifically do *not* bind the conscience of the believer to agree with them: “”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.” The Pope is doing much the same here, which is why orthodox Catholics all agree that abortion is immoral, but are divided over the prudential question of whether this war is just or not. In the matter of abortion, the bedrock principles of Catholic moral theology say there is no way the State can declare good what God declares evil. But in the matter of Just War, the Pope is urging a course of action as a prudential judgment while leaving open the reality that other Catholics of good will may evaluate the situation differently in light of the Tradition. It’s a little like Paul’s approach to fornication and marriage. Paul absolutely forbade fornication just as the Tradition forbids abortion. Paul strongly *urged* consecrated virginity, but also made it clear that marriage was no sin. In the same way, the Magisterium absolutely condemns the taking of innocent life in abortion, but what you are not hearing from the Magisterium is the assertion that war with Iraq would be intrinsically immoral.

Hope that clarifies things a bit.