Each morning, as I stroll to my office, I come within sight of two noted Washington landmarks. To my right, close at hand, is the dome of the Capitol. To my left, a few miles away, is the complementary dome of the National Shrine. As we all know, that Shrine is consecrated to the Immaculate Conception, and the shape of its dome is no accident. In building the Shrine, our forefathers (just one or two generations ago) were making an explicit demonstration of our nation’s dependence on the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Within the Shrine, Catholics would invoke the help of our nation’s patroness, seeking God’s blessings on the work of our legislators.
In their forthcoming Pastoral Letter, the American bishops will address a fearsome problem that confronts us as a nation. So one might expect some reference to the Virgin; after all, the American Church has given ample notice that we would be asking for her help in such critical matters. But no; in 105 pages of text, the draft Pastoral Letter does not mention Mary’s name.
Well, but Marian devotion has been out of fashion for several years now. Does the draft Pastoral emphasize some other means of seeking divine help? Again, no. Indeed, in reading the draft over several times, I have been struck by a growing sense of how little attention it pays to the power of the supernatural.
Supernatural: does that word jar the modern American sensibilities? Precisely. One primary function of the Church leadership is to jolt us out of our complacent reliance on secular ideologies. And more to the point, why should we listen to the bishops? Certainly they have no credentials as military analysts. Their only claim to authority stems from our belief that, as successors to the apostles, they have some supernatural guidance in forming their teachings. If they ignore the supernatural realm, the bishops will be undercutting their own standing to speak on this issue.
On the surface, the draft Pastoral appears to be a document prepared from a distinctively Catholic position. The letter is larded with citations from Scripture, references to the Catholic intellectual tradition, and exhortations to the theological virtues of faith and hope. We are called to serve as peacemakers, as Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount. The subtitle of the draft is “God’s Promise and Our Response.” But again and again, the emphasis is more on our response than on God’s promise. We are seen as the peacemakers; faith and hope give us the confidence to proclaim the Gospel message.
As Ronald McArthur has pointed out in his trenchant critique of the draft, this usage is a misinterpretation of the theological virtue of hope. As Christians we hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. As realists, we should not hope too fondly for any such reconciliation engineered by human minds. Mankind has been trying to abolish warfare for thousands of years, with no success. To hope for a sudden breakthrough, enabling us to accomplish what no other civilization has accomplished, would be an exercise not in hope but in utopianism.
We pitiful humans cannot stop war. But God holds the power over life and death, war and peace. The Psalmist sang his praises, saying: “He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.” Faced with a problem that has proven intractable throughout human history, our natural response as Christians should be to prayer.
Again, let me make my point clear. I do not mean that we must confine ourselves solely to prayer in our response to the nuclear threat. Far from it. There is an urgent need for action, and our faith gives ample guidance for that action. Elsewhere I have argued that the draft Pastoral makes dangerous suggestions for political responses to the defense crisis. But here I am confining myself to the peculiarly Christian responsibility to pray for peace — to recognize the weakness of our human efforts, and ask the Lord to remedy our deficiencies.
The draft pastoral spends only three pages explaining the role of prayer and penance in the cause of implication is that prayer enables us to concentrate better on our role as peacemakers; there is little indication that prayer might actually produce a supernatural response. Thus, the draft begins with the unexceptionable statement that “Christians, knowing they will be heard, beseech the risen Christ to gift (sic) our world with his peace.” But the tone changes with the next sentence: “Only in prayer can we find the wisdom and the courage necessary even to begin our search for peace.” (Emphasis added.)
Jesus has warned us that his is a peace that the world cannot give. The Peace of Christ, for which we pray daily, is a supernatural peace: not a mere cessation of warfare, not something that can be constructed by human efforts. Even the lesser goal of peace in this life has resisted our efforts at every turn. If it seems somehow impractical to pray for peace, every other approach seems even more impractical.
A generation of Catholics — not just in this country but around the world — was raised in the belief that our best hope for peace lies in the conversion of the Soviet Union. After all, without the threat of totalitarian communism, the arms race would shrivel in significance. At Fatima, Mary provided a set of explicit instructions as to how we might effect that vital conversion. So it is somewhat odd that the draft Pastoral does not mention the promises of Fatima, or the devotions that thousands of pious Catholics have undertaken for the cause of peace. One can only hope that the final Pastoral Letter does include some mention of our need for supernatural help. Unlike any political solution, prayer cannot make matters worse. Unlike an ICBM, a rosary is meant to be used.