More on the Divide in Catholic Moral Theology

More on the Divide in Catholic Moral Theology May 14, 2014

A reader writes:

The article by George Weigel was indeed very troubling, but it’s not the last time that a major Catholic thinker has openly broken with — or ignored — the Church’s teaching, in order to advocate for war.

In February 2014, Robert George co-wrote a piece for National Review in which he advocated for a declaration by Congress authorizing the President to conduct a pre-emptive war against Iran, at his discretion, without further consultation or consent from Congress.

Leaving aside the utter folly of such an idea, and it’s complete incompatibility with international law, there were two really shocking things about this, from a Catholic perspective.

First, it is appalling that such a prominent Catholic thinker would advocate for such a thing, without even once mentioning Catholic teaching on the morality of war, or indeed any Catholic perspective at all (e.g., Pope John Paul’s and Cardinal Ratzinger’s clear denunciation of the notion of pre-emptive war).

And second, it is deeply disappointing that no other Catholic thinker called him to task about this. I realize that men like Robert George and George Weigel are widely respected on the Catholic conservative side, and rightly so. But when they’re wrong, and when they go against the teaching of the Church, it is disturbing that no other prominent Catholic thinkers were willing to contradict them.

Thank you for being willing to defend authentic Catholic teaching in this area!

I’m happy to contradict them, for all the reasons you mention, and I’m thankful you brought the piece to my attention. I missed it when it came out. Oy.

It’s fascinating to me that, for all the hubbub on the Right about Obama’s lawlessness (a very just critique), when it comes to the use of violence abroad, the Right is foursquare behind giving Obama draconian powers. Watching Catholics completely ditch just war teaching to act as court prophet for this is just so depressing. Meanwhile, from Iraq to Israel to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, the most concrete and reliable result of our foreign policy is the destruction of the Catholic Church. Brilliant.

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  • Rachel

    This is where part of my disillusion of the “pro-life” movement comes from. Pro-life should encompass all life. I am appalled at some who enthusiastically cheer for more war, especially when it is unnecessary. They are shills for power hungry politicians. Meanwhile, not only are our Catholic brothers and sisters caught in the crossfire in these stupid wars. Other innocents are as well.

    • Sean O

      The pro-life movement is honorable, noble & necessary. It’s foundation is largely Catholic. Unfortunately too often the prolife movement has allowed itself to be co-opted by the Republican Party. It is a shame & a great disservice to the cause of human dignity which is its purpose, for the prolife movement to lower itself to schilling a Republican agenda.

      The prolife MASS enthusiastic endorsement of PRO-Choice Senate candidate Republican Scott Brown was a truly tasteless partisan low point. This kind of behavior needs to be removed from the ProLife movement. There is much work to do.

      • thisismattwade

        I’m often left wondering why the pro-life movement hasn’t generated more genuinely pro-life politicians. I have been involved for some odd 7 years (a late bloomer, sadly), and the crop so far is disheartening. As you said, it is “honorable, noble & necessary. It’s foundation is largely Catholic.” Perhaps the youth involvement will fulfill my dream, or perhaps those who are called aren’t listening; but the Church’s Social Doctrine is too rich to have a good part of it ripped from the remaining good part of it, as is too often done by both dominant political parties.

        • Ken

          I think we should stop looking for politicians to lead the way. They are bound to disappoint regardless of the party they are in.

          • Alexander S Anderson

            Yep, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t operate by trying to get politicians elected and then waiting for them to do something. It’s kind of a stupid way to go about things, it’s sad that the pro-life movement has too often gotten to think that way.

        • wineinthewater

          Because the pro-life movement is just a vote farm. I would argue that the Republican Party’s true constituency is not pro-life voters, but fiscally conservative voters. I think this is borne out in Republican voting records and how much political capital (not time, but political capital) is spent on fiscally conservative issues versus pro-life issues.

          After all, where do you think more donation money is coming from?

          • Sean O

            Spot on.

          • Sean O

            Spot on

          • Andy

            So very, but sadly true!

      • everyman

        The Republican Party platform is pro-life.
        The Democrat Party platform is pro-choice, one could say anti-life.
        That doesn’t always play out the way it should in the strict definition of the terms. Nevertheless, the statements and majority of the pols sporting the respective labels abide by them.
        I know that there are many democrat voters out there who wish it wasn’t so. They do more wiggling than a chubby girl trying on a tight pair jeans to make it look like the dems control the higher ground but it just aint so. No, the “shills” are democrats wandering around aimlessly, looking desperately for any ground. They’ll take a swamp with a D. over a hill with an R.

          • Andy, Bad Person

            In Nevada only. Hopefully not a trend nationally. I also think the actions of politicians speak louder than party platforms.

            • With the Republicans, the collective action of the politicians has been that individual wealth and property rights mean a heck of a lot more than human life for a very long time now.

              The sad part is where the Democrats are willing to feed the poor, they seem to be more willing to kill the poor.

        • Sean O


          The key is that the R-party platform SAYS they are Pro-Life.
          Suppose that’s NICE. But nice doesn’t do much for us, our culture, scared pregnant women & unborn babies. In fact it does next to NOTHING.

          Everyman. I say I’m Superman. Does saying so have any effect on reality. Does it mean anything if I can’t jump tall buildings in a single leap, fly, bend steel or stop bullets?

          So the truth is the Republican Party is prolife to the extent I’m Superman. It’s what we SAY.

          Far far more important is what we DO. Judge men by their deeds, what they do, not by what they say.
          And as far as ProLife goes, the Republican Party DOES NOTHING.

          • everyman

            The fact that the Platform is pro-life is significant because it can serve as a springboard for pro-life groups to take it further. The way dems and media play the political game is they “Bork” anyone who is too vocal on the issue. Todd Akin was a good example of a dem./media smear campaign. Any minor misspeak will take the candidate down to defeat. After-all, the party has to play the game to win seats. The lefties control the debate. I’m not a huge fan of the Reps. but at least they give pro-life a chance while the other side is violently pro public funded abortion.

      • Ken

        Well said.

  • antigon

    Just in passim, George Weigel is hardly a major Catholic thinker, or really much of a thinker at all. Rather more something like neocon celebrity, famous (to them) for being famously predictable. Sorry to see Robert George turn against the teachings of the Faith, tho since that article was co-written let us hope NR was taking advantage of senility rather than seducing him into rank immorality.

    • Sean O.

      George Weigel just likes feeling satisfied w himself. He likes feeling that he is a loyal true Catholic, but what he is a loyal true Republican/NeoCon with a liking for certain conservative aspects of Catholic doctrine & an inclination to ignore whatever doesn’t fit his political outlook & allegiances. His true faith is Americanism.

    • Whether or not Weigel’s intellectual acumen is much, there’s no doubt he has a towering position in the Catholic Commentariat here in America, and does a lot to shape its views. With the exception of his mentor Fr. Nehaus, probably no voice has shapred American Catholicism over the last 20 years more. If you wanna know why “establishment” of American Catholicism is so bankrupt, look at men like Weigel. Then look at most of the commentariat and the blogosphere who fights like hell to manage the decline they inherited from Weigel’s ilk

      • antigon

        KT: He really doesn’t have a towering position at all, save among a laughable, very small, & utterly predictable – even to them – Amen Corner clique. Neuhaus – not Nehaus, & in passim not magesterium, but magisterium – God rest his soul, was already in decline for dancing the neocon line against said magisterium, but his passionate exaltation of the Legionnaire monster brought even that to an end.

        Neither does he shape the clique’s views, since they are already set in stone; he is but one of their parrots. As to who actually shapes Catholicism in this country, surely that’s our Lord; those who distort are of course Legion, not to say piggy.

  • JM1001

    e.g., Pope John Paul’s and Cardinal Ratzinger’s clear denunciation of the notion of pre-emptive war.

    Is this actually true? I honestly want to know.

    I had always thought that it was the concept of preventive war that was dubious, if not evil. But pre-emptive war is something else entirely — that is, a war launched in response to a specific and imminent threat (whereas a preventive war is launched in response to a “threat” that is not specific and imminent, but only might materialize at some point in the future).

    • I don’t have citations from the popes, and I only speak from my personal understanding, so I’m open to correction from more knowledgeable commentors.

      My understanding is that a mere “threat” is not sufficient to justify going to war. There must be an act of aggression. Now, this act of aggression may not be troops crossing a border. I’m not sure exactly where the line is drawn. Is arming a missile, for example, a threat or an act of aggression? That may be debatable. However, merely possessing, or producing, weapons is not an act of aggression. It may lead to an arms race, but it ought not lead to war.

      This, at least, is my read of CCC 2309, which speaks of “the damage inflicted”, not of “the damage threatened.”

      • JM1001

        Thank you for the response.

        I think part of the problem is that people tend to use “preventive” and “preemptive” interchangeably, even though they mean different things. I could be wrong, but it was only during the Bush administration that this linguistic confusion emerged.

        My understanding is that a mere “threat” is not sufficient to justify going to war.

        True. For example, even if there is a specific and imminent threat, there may be nonviolent means of neutralizing that threat. Those means must be tried first. Any violent option is considered last (or “last resort”).

        Another problem (which you hinted at) is what exactly constitutes a specific and imminent threat. Certainly troops massing on your border and preparing for an invasion seems to qualify. Other situations may be more difficult to define. Given the destructiveness of war, I tend to set the bar on “specific and imminent threat” pretty high.

        In fact, one of the controversies over the Obama administration’s secret memos on its authority to kill American citizens involved its definition of “imminence” as being completely devoid of all meaning.

        With all that said, I’m probably more in agreement with Mark on this issue than not. In fact, I may actually be somewhat of a radical: I sometimes wonder whether there can ever be such a thing as a “just war,” given the destructive nature of war itself. But that’s another discussion.

    • The problem is that you never know when a specific and imminent threat, will turn out to be false propaganda of a dictator to keep his own people under control.

      Where are those Iraqi WMDs again?

      Clinton lied and no one died, says the left, but in reality, Saddam lied, W Bush believed him, and we have 10 years of chaos and death as the result.

      • JM1001

        The problem is that you never know when a specific and imminent threat, will turn out to be false.

        I gave an example in the comment I just posted: troops massing on your border preparing to invade is pretty clear cut.

        • But you don’t need pre-emptive warfare for that threat. You need strong borders and a good defense, but there’s no need to invade anybody else, just resist the invasion.

          In this day and age of robotics, exploding remote controlled vehicles might be enough- you might not even need any troops at all.

          • JM1001

            What if the troops massing at your border are massing in such a matter that, after X amount of time that is sufficiently imminent, they will be capable of overwhelming your so-called “strong borders and good defense”? Can you preemptively strike across your border to hinder their efforts to achieve that end? Or do you have to wait until they actually attack?

            A couple of nonviolent means of addressing this problem immediately jump out:

            (1) Diplomacy, of course.

            (2) Shoring up your borders and defense to prevent the enemy from being able to overwhelm them.

            There may be all sorts of reasons why those two solutions may not be successful. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say they are not successful. Are you morally justified in preemptively striking against the troops massing at your border — troops who will be imminently capable of overwhelming your border and defenses — in order to defend innocent life?

            I struggle with such a question, to be honest.

            • #2 is obvious. But yes, you have to wait for the attackers to actually cross the border.

              If they are truly stronger, a preemptive strike will not defend innocent life, it will merely prompt them to cross the border.

              The best Christian solution in that case is surrender.

              • Dave G.

                And then hope it isn’t a war of extermination.

  • Struble

    Kudos, Mark. The Obama Adm. is anti-Catholic in manners and morals, and why would any disciple of Christ want to enhance its power either domestically or internationally?

    • Ken

      Strange the same people, neo conservatives, who think Obama is evil are also willing to give him an unlimited military budget.

      • Dave G.

        Consistency as opposed to expediency.

  • Elmwood

    Truth is, there may never be a “just war” given the collateral damage and evils associated with modern warfare. Given the fact that our recent Popes have explicitly said “no war”, it is unacceptable that so many prominent American Catholics are eager to use force rather than dialogue to settle conflicts.

    I remember in my Air Force days, they gave us a book on war by Carl von Clausewitz where upon it was drilled into our heads that “war is the continuation of politics by other means“. This is hardly a Catholic justification of war.

    • JM1001

      Truth is, there may never be a “just war” given the collateral damage and evils associated with modern warfare.

      Whenever the topic of “just war” comes up, this is the thought that most occupies my mind.

    • Mariana Baca

      I think people oversimplify the concept of just war. You don’t declare a whole war a “just war”. There is the intention to go to war, that can be just, and within that the acts of war can be just. Just like sex must happen within a marriage to be licit, also the acts within the marriage must be licit, too.

      I would argue there have been lots of wars where the intention was just. One can hardly argue that the British did not have the right to defend themselves against the Nazis. But even within a war, both sides can take actions that are not just or are just. With modern war, it is more difficult, so more wars should be avoided. “Going to war” as a preemptive action pretty much goes against the main tenants of just war.

  • I don’t have a dog in this fight, but these kinds of thinkers are the ones who have savaged traditionalists for quite some time. So hopefully more people wake up to realize that Weigel and friends have done immense harm to the credibility of the Catholic Church, while fattening their pockets and hitting the cocktail and lecture circuts.

    These kind of guys are the real danger: A Magesterium of the Magesterium, using their positions of respect and authority to give us the “real” meaning of Catholic teaching, even if it has as much to do with it as night does with day.