Pensees Parisiennes

In Paris on Armistice Day, I went to Mass at Notre Dame where the Leaders of the nation, the diplomatic corps and assorted faithful had gathered around the archbishop, Cardinal Lustiger, to offer thanks to God for the end of a war the French at least will never forget and to pray for peace.

There are places so heavy with history, so freighted with the memory of past holy and heinous events, that it is hard to keep a sense of the present in them. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is surely one of these, but each will have its own thoughts. Not everyone perhaps will be reminded of Paul Claudel’s moving account of his conversion which took place there one Christmas Eve. For the rest of his life, he remembered precisely where he had been standing at the time.

The sacrileges of the Revolution will come to the minds of some. More might recall Napoleon’s coronation, with a kidnapped pope in attendance. It was that latter image that came to me and variations on it kept occurring. In examining my conscience, which is my business, not yours, I may accuse myself of distraction at prayer. But since God permits evil only for the sake of some good, I recall the occasion now to wring such profit from it as it will yield.

First of all, that kidnapped pope. Pius VII. Chiaramonte. There is a huge statue of him in St. Peter’s, but for four years, after having been kidnapped from the Quirinale, he was held hostage by Napoleon, made furious by papal intransigence before his effort to gain control of the church in France. Is it permissible to think that the massive and ignominious defeat in Russia was a retribution for this sacrilege? After the fall, that pope, freed, looked after the Corsican’s relatives in Rome, including Napoleon’s mother, which was the Christian thing to do.

Cardinal Lustiger is himself a most interesting man. A year or so ago, there was a profile article on him in the New York Times Magazine which quoted him as saying, anent the views of the American Bishops on nuclear weapons and deterrence, that the problem was that Americans do not really think anything can happen to them. There he stood at the great altar, vested in priestly and cardinalatial splendor, his hands extended in the prescribed attitude of prayer, his shoulders slightly hunched and his head bowed, and he seemed quintessentially Jewish. By which I mean a man who has known tragedy, who is close to God and has a consequent wisdom and humor.

That very week the bishops of France had issued a pastoral letter, Gagner la paix, passed with only two dissenting votes. It would be overly dramatic to describe it as a response to the pastoral of the American bishops — a document referred to by the French — but taken together with what the German and Italian bishops have had to say, the French bishops’ pastoral is, not to put too fine a point upon it, a welcome complement to our own bishops’ letter.

I do not propose to dwell here on the substantive differences between the French and American pastorals. We reprint the partial text of the French pastoral in this issue in English translation and readers can make their own comparisons. But let us simply imagine, what is in fact true, that I think the French bishops’ statement is vastly superior to the American. What would be the, so to say, formal significance of that judgment?

What is the present position of Catholics on the matter of the nuclear deterrent and the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States of America? Does this depend on whether one lives in America or France or Nicaragua or Russia? It looks as if there is a plurality of Catholic positions. From which it follows, in Logic I as elsewhere, that there is no single Catholic position on the matter. Nor does this suggest some mad relativism.

It is not the case that the French bishops are arguing A and are correct in doing so, while the American bishops are arguing -A and are also correct in doing so. The whole thing goes to the internal structure of the judgments I am symbolizing by A and -A. They are efforts to think about very contingent matters in the light of the faith and the conclusions arrived at share in the contingency of what is being reflected on. There are of course moral absolutes in the matter and there is no disagreement between the various bishops conferences on those. For example, the direct killing of the innocent is per se immoral. That is not an American apercu of which the French are unaware. The differences lie rather in pondering how such absolutes fit the immensely complex situation created by nuclear, and other, modern arms. It is true that the French bishops seem less enamored of mere survival and actually underscore the unacceptable ideology of Marxism-Leninism, thus transcending the trap of treating the two superpowers as if they were moral clones of one another.

The fact of this plurality of pastoral letters from different national conferences of bishops illustrates dramatically the premise on which this journal was founded. It is dangerously wrong to suggest, where there is manifestly possible a plurality of permissible views, that one of those views is the Catholic view, thus making it a test of orthodoxy. We felt that this danger was not adequately avoided in the skirmishes which preceded the issuance of our bishops’ pastoral letter. We frankly worry about the tone of the projected letter on economics. And who does not shudder at the prospect of a pastoral on women?

There was a remark attributed to Cardinal Ratzinger at the time the committee of American bishops charged with drafting the pastoral on War and Peace met with him in a session whose purpose has been variously described. The Cardinal, speaking as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, said that national conferences of bishops do not possess a missio docendi. If I were a theologian I would be able to clarify what that means. So far as I know there has not yet been any discussion of Cardinal Ratzinger’s remark.

The moral absolutes they may contain apart, then, the pastorals from national bishops conferences would seem to provide us, not with definitive Church teaching — given their diversity, that could be the case only on pain of incoherence of doctrine — but with serious meditations on the ramifications of the faith in a most contingent area. No one could or should fail to take seriously what a body of bishops has to say. But it is comforting, given some of their arguments, that one need not identify these statements with the faith tout court.

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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