Fr. Michael Baxter

Fr. Michael Baxter June 11, 2009

“[T]he teaching of the Catholic Church on any number of so-called life issues — abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, the waging of war — runs counter to the theory and practice that prevails in the political order we call ‘the United States of America,’ but Catholics have nevertheless managed to accomodate themselves all too well to this political order. This becomes disturbingly clear during wartime when the church ceases to be a body in and of itself and becomes, in keeping with [Randolph] Bourne’s description, just one more cell within the body politic of the state. This is why Catholics rarely if ever ask themselves a question that must be asked in the United States in this day and in wartime: Why should Catholics defend a political order that protects by law the so-called right of parents to destroy their unborn sons and daughters?”

(Michael J. Baxter, “Dispelling the ‘We’ Fallacy from the Body of Christ: The Task of Catholics in a Time of War,” Dissent from the Homeland: Essays After September 11, Ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Frank Lentricchia (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003), 114)

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  • ron chandonia

    I agree with the first point. In wartime, both the leadership and the members of the Catholic Church close ranks in support of the USA, regardless of the circumstances that led to the war or the terms on which it is fought. But the next point is somewhat confusing. Is Father Baxter suggesting that if abortion were restricted by law in the United States, or prohibited altogether, Catholics would be more justified in fighting its wars? That sounds more like Richard Neuhaus than Michael Baxter.

  • Is Father Baxter suggesting that if abortion were restricted by law in the United States, or prohibited altogether, Catholics would be more justified in fighting its wars?

    No, definitely not. Baxter is a pacifist.

  • Excelsior


    He’s suggesting that Catholics are not obligated to defend just any social order, but only just ones; or else, that any war which could end in a victory for a just social order may possibly be a just war if it fulfills all the other criteria, but it cannot be a just war if the social order engaging in it is not just.

    The practical outcome of this logic, if all Catholics followed it, would be that all Catholics would automatically, always, be conscientious objectors unless and until abortion was illegal; after which (I gather) they’d usually be conscientious objectors.

  • “This becomes disturbingly clear during wartime when the church ceases to be a body in and of itself and becomes, in keeping with [Randolph] Bourne’s description, just one more cell within the body politic of the state.”

    What Church is he talking about?

    I don’t remember this ever happening to the Catholic Church.

  • wj


    I think he is talking about the Catholic Church *in the United States of America* as opposed to the Catholic Church universally considered. How many bishops and priests were united with Rome in the condemnation of our war of aggression against Iraq? How many lay faithful chose to place their identity as Americans before their identity of Catholics? I don’t recall any bishop, or group of bishops, calling on Catholics to conscientiously object to the Iraq War on the grounds that it was unjust. I recall, to the contrary, mealy-mouthed prayers for peace without any strong condemnation of American bellicosity and, among the orthodox, a readiness to swallow wholesale the propaganda-masked-as-theology marketed by Weigel, Neuhaus, and the rest of the First Things crowd. (I include myself in this latter camp: I have learned my lesson.)

  • Joe

    I think Baxter is no longer in active ministry. So, not “Fr. Baxter” any longer.

  • wj – Well said.

    Joe – I have heard that recently but I have not seen any evidence of it.

  • wj,

    Given that the Vatican and bishops throughout the rest of the world hadn’t called on Catholic soldiers in the US to conscientiously object to serving in the Iraq War, I’m not clear how you see the US Bishops as having behaved differently.

  • Darwin – The u.s. bishops are expected to behave differently by providing concrete, pastoral judgments in the u.s. context.

    wj – Romanian Catholic bishop Michael Botean of Canton did forbid the faithful in his diocese from participating in the Iraq War, insisting that doing so would lead one into mortal sin.

  • wj,

    When you ask the question, “How many lay faithful chose to place their identity as Americans before their identity of Catholics?”, do you really think there is an answer? I have no idea how many Catholics do that.

    I hope it’s not many. Most of the orthodox Catholics I know, the ones who believe and try to practice what the Church teaches (especially with respect to birth control) are certainly Catholic before they are American. This certainly isn’t proof of anything, but it is an experience that is contrary to the situation you premised your question on.

    As far as the Bishops and the Church being “just another cell in the body of the State” – this seems to me to be right in one way and wrong in another. The Church, even the Church in America, is most certainly not another component of the state, even when the Church is weak and our witness is not what it should be. But as you are likely trying to point out,. the Church is not nearly visible enough, our witness is not holy enough, as it should be. This is especially true in our time and it is something to lament indeed.

    As far as the Bishops – the bishops don’t really offer pastoral guidance on much these days; when they do, they speak with many different voices. This is sad, but it is part of fallen human reality. Which is to say, this is not an American or even modern phenomenon.

  • The u.s. bishops are expected to behave differently by providing concrete, pastoral judgments in the u.s. context.

    I can see your point there, but there seems to be a consistency issue here.

    For instance, when a large minority of US bishops strongly urged their flocks not to vote for Obama in the recent election, people around here often pointed out that the Vatican had not issued any such statement.

    When bishops denounced Notre Dame University’s decision to give Obama an honorary degree, it was argued that they were deviating from Vatican policy since the Vatican had not issued a similar condemnation.

    And when the US bishops do not tell their flocks that they must not serve in the Iraq War, we now have the claim that they are failing in their duty to correctly apply Vatican policy.

    It almost seems like there’s little interest in what the US bishops actually teach as a practical application of pastoral judgement in the US context, and instead simply a desire to hear one parrot one’s own talking points.

    This is not unique to the Catholic left — conservatives too often brush off what the US bishops say in the process of applying Catholic teaching to local issues such as immigration. But in the criticism above it sounds like Fr. Baxter is more interested telling the bishops what to say than actually listening to what they do say. Sheep eager to run the pasture.

  • From the USCCB:

    “Our Church honors the commitment and sacrifice of those who serve in our nation’s armed forces, and also recognizes the moral right to conscientious objection to war in general, a particular war, or a military procedure.”

    Given that no reasonable person could possibly deem the Iraq war just (remember, the Church condemns “preventive war”), I think the Church should have done more to encourage selective conscientious objection.

  • Man, I’ve missed these conversations.

    Working sucks!


  • Working sucks!

    Ah, but consider the alternative! (Actually, I’m sitting in a product meeting now, so there’s not necessarily an incompatibility.)


    If working with your assumptions makes it insanely obvious that the USCCB should have acted differently than it did, and yet they didn’t, isn’t it possible that your assumptions are not actually shared by the USCCB, or indeed are simply not correct?

  • wj


    I don’t have an answer to that question, which was intended to be rhetorical. Look, I agree with everything you say about the Church in America right up till your concluding claim that “this is sad, but it is part of fallen human reality. Which is to say, this is not an American or even modern phenomenon.” To my mind, this kind of gesture appeals to the general truth about sin in order to efface particular historical and cultural differences in sin’s manifestation. The reasons why things are both better and worse for the Catholic Church in America rather than in, say, contemporary Europe, are many and complex. But one reason is that America, being founded expressly as a Protestant/Deist/Liberal regime, has always had a set of cultural assumptions that run counter to Catholicism; and the tendency has been for Catholics to “prove” to themselves and others that they can be as patriotic as the next citizen, despite their Catholicism. Now, one area in which one’s American bona fides tend to be tested is the area of international conflict and support for the American armed forces. With few exceptions, you do not regularly find Catholic priests and bishops preaching about the excesses of American foreign policy, calling on Catholic soldiers to discern whether and how they can licitly partake in a particular military action, etc., and this–to my mind–is due to the American hierarchy’s having internalized, to some degree (certainly no more nor less than the average lay Catholic), a sort of American exceptionalism, which keeps them from being as critical of our national foreign policy as they perhaps should. No doubt something of the WWII mystique of the American soldier still plays a role here.

    Now–in response to Darwin Catholic–I happen to think as well that the bishops were correct in telling their flock that a vote for Obama was only barely (if it was at all) morally licit; but, to my mind, the bishops’ correct assessment of the electoral scenario and their willingness to speak to it only serves to highlight their silence in the years 2001-2003, when the American populace–and American Catholics who serve in the Armed Forces–needed to hear their clear denunciation of a preemptive war as *intrinsically* unjust and did not.

  • Darwin – Your suggestion that the “large minority” of bishops (interesting term, that) who “urged” (another interesting choice of words) Catholics not to vote for Obama represents “the teaching of the bishops” is funny. So is your suggestion that the handful of bishops who raised a fuss about Obama also represent “the teaching of the bishops” is even funnier.

    There is no “consistency” issue here, unless you mean on the part of the u.s. bishops.

  • wj,

    I think there’s a wider historical context you’re missing there, however. Looking at European history, we have a huge number of wars that were fought with Catholics fighting on both sides, and yet the number of instances where one nations clergy spoke up and urged the faithful in that country not to participate in the way is vanishingly small. Whever is going on here is certainly not unique to the US.

    Indeed, for all the comparisons to contemporary Europe, there aren’t to my knowledge many cases in the last 40 years of European clergy urging the faithful not to participate in a military action — it’s just that Europe has been engaged in rather less military action overall than the US in the last 40 years.


    “Large minority” was taken to express a situation where we had 60-80 bishops speaking out on an issue — clearly a large enough voice to be worth paying a lot of attention to (especially when not one spoke up to the contrary), and yet still a minority of the bishops.

    Frankly, the parallels seem pretty obvious. The Vatican did not say either that Catholics should not vote for Obama nor that Catholics should not serve in the Iraq war.

    In the former case, roughly 80 bishops spoke up saying that Catholics should not vote for Obama. In the latter case, one bishop outside the Latin Rite spoke up saying that Catholics should not serve in Iraq.

    How exactly is it that you’re sure the one bishop was right but the 80 bishops were wrong? Basically because one agrees with your prior commitments and the others don’t.

  • especially when not one spoke up to the contrary

    This isn’t true at all. The majority of the bishops spoke clearly through Faithful Citizenship. Not a few implied that voting for Obama would be the better choice. As usual, you only see what you want to see.

  • wj


    Your historical point sounds plausible enough, and we would have to look at particular wars and the particular stance of the clergy toward those wars to see whether your suspicions are correct, as they well might be.

    Modern warfare–say from WWI onward–seems to me to demand a much greater skepticism from the perspective of Just War Theory, since civilian casualties seem to be much more an essential part of it than prior modes of warfare. So I think, if anything, (and perhaps here we agree) the Church needs to be especially wary of any war that is undertaken via long-range missiles, bombs, etc. for the reason that it is all the more unlikely such a war will fail Just War criteria for proportionality (even *if* the casus belli remains just–which is hard enough to show).

    As for your dispute with Michael (if I may), it seems that he finds support in the fact that the papacy and college of cardinals unambiguously condemned the Iraq War, while they didn’t unambiguously condemn a vote for Obama. But despite this unambiguous condemnation of the war, a much smaller and less vocal contingent of American Catholic bishops were critical of it as compared with those denouncing a vote for Obama. Now I myself could not have voted for Obama in good conscience, and I believe those bishops who suggested as much are on pretty firm ground; but–speaking again from personal experience–during 2001 through 2003 American bishops did not adequately counter Weigel et. al.’s support for the Administration’s decision to invade Iraq, leaving many Catholics who were otherwise disposed toward the Bush Administration during that period for other reasons, such as abortion, etc. under the impression that the criticisms coming from Rome were not all that important, that Bush’s “prudence” could not be rightly questioned by a theological authority, etc. And it seems to me fair to state that on this issue the American Church dropped the ball–either because it was caught up in the fervor for vengeance and action that gripped a large part of the rest of the nation, or because it was wary of the political and cultural consequences that would follow upon its standing against this fervor.

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