The Bishops Wash Their Hands

A non-Catholic sees the Bernadin Committee increasing the danger it seeks to lessen.

In November 1982 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops received and discussed the report of its Ad Hoc Committee on War and Peace, which had worked for over one year under the chairmanship of Archbishop Bernadin of Chicago. The Conference is to vote in spring 1983 on whether to adopt the report, with whatever modifications, as an official position of the American episcopate; the discussion in November suggests strong support among the bishops for the Bernardin report.

Bishops are apparently no better than senators at preventing leaks, so there were no big surprises in November. Nevertheless, the public airing of the Bernardin report at a Washington gathering of all the Catholic bishops of the United States has had a significant impact. The main points of the report are indeed dramatic: A clear condemnation of nuclear warfare against population centers, of any first use of nuclear weapons, and of the concept of limited nuclear war; also, a condemnation of a “declared intent to use” nuclear weapons (on the grounds that we may not even threaten to do the morally indefensible). While these points put the bishops very close to a position of nuclear pacifism, they did not condemn the possession of nuclear weapons as such, even as a tactic of deterrence, but only if such possession is accompanied by a search for mutual and verifiable nuclear disarmament. All the same, the purpose of the bishops, according to the report, is “to build a barrier against the concept of nuclear war as a viable strategy for defense.” This purpose, of course, puts the bishops in an adversary stance toward the entire defense concept of the United States and its allies. The special words addressed in the report to Catholic soldiers and defense workers (who are enjoined to ongoingly assess their activities in the light of their Catholic consciences) give some indication that “a Church at the service of peace,” in the meaning of the report, might soon become a dissident community. Needless to say, this prospect is far from dismaying to a vocal minority of American Catholics.

For a non-Catholic, this is a puzzling and disturbing document. Clearly, these are good and thoughtful men, moved by a sense of their vocation to provide moral guidance to their troubled constituents. At the same time, this is a strangely abstract document, moral philosophy working itself out in some place far away from the concrete dilemmas of political reality (the non-Catholic is reminded, in an unpleasant way, of the convoluted moral logic behind the Catholic position on birth control). The key paradox of the report’s position, of course, is the idea that it is possible to deter an aggressor by possessing a weapon that one has said one will never use. William O’Brien (in an article in The Washington Quarterly, in spring 1982) has called this idea “insane.” However one may want to describe it, this idea simultaneously reveals the bishops’ good intentions (they shrink back from the unilateral disarmament toward which the logic of their argument inexorably points) and their remoteness from the hard realities of international politics (have they really asked themselves how their statements are read in Moscow?). But this is not the place to go into the military and political implications of this document. Rather, the question to be raised here is about the quality of moral judgment revealed by it. The bishops of the Bernardin committee and those agreeing with them in the larger body make two fundamental assumptions: One is that there is a morally clean position on the issue of nuclear war; the other is that they know what it is. Quite apart from the military and political weaknesses of the report, these two assumptions are at the core of what is wrong here.

Let it be stipulated that there are human predicaments out of which one may emerge with clean hands, morally speaking. But such predicaments are exceedingly rare in the political arena. Consequently, the assumption that one can chart a morally correct course and come out looking good must usually be buttressed with illusions. In this case, it is quite clear where the illusions are. The most fateful illusion, probably is that the threat of nuclear war can be definitely lifted from mankind. The bishops tell us that the threat of nuclear war itself is “neither tolerable nor necessary.” Intolerable it may well be, in the sense that imagining it is terrible beyond words. Tolerable it must be, in the sense that the threat is most unlikely to be lifted in the foreseeable future. Once the capability to make nuclear weapons was acquired, the threat that someone would use them became a permanent feature of the international scene — and it would very probably remain that even if the superpowers dismantled their nuclear arsenals. This does not imply, of course, that one ought to do nothing to reduce or contain the threat, that useful steps toward nuclear disarmament could not be taken. But the notion that the threat can be dissolved if morally courageous people in the United States take the proper steps is both delusionary and dangerous.

The danger derives from another fateful illusion lurking in this document — to wit, that human beings have adequate control over the consequences of their actions. The bishops seem to think that, once they have discovered the morally correct position in this matter, the consequences of their taking it will be the consequences they intend. Yet precisely this is very questionable indeed. On the contrary, there are good reasons to think that, were the United States government to take the position advanced by the bishops, nuclear war would become more likely. Michael Novak has spelled out this likelihood in his criticism of the Bernadin report which appeared in the first issue of this journal, as have spokesmen of the Administration. The thinking behind this assessment is essentially simple: The only plausible political effect of the American bishops’ coming out in this way will be to weaken Western programs to catch up with the vast Soviet arms buildup of the last decade, by lending greater moral legitimacy to the peace movement in the United States and in Western Europe. Minimally, this is likely to reduce the incentive to the Soviets to engage in meaningful negotiations toward arms limitation. Maximally, such weakening in the Western defense posture increases the temptation to the Soviets to make use of their strategic advantage — and this increases the very threat of nuclear war that the bishops want to avert. Can those who reason in this way be sure of their assessment of the situation? Certainly not. But neither can the bishops. In such a situation, in which the most horrendous consequences may follow from any course taken by the United States, it would seem that a less self- assured moral stance than the one taken by the bishops would be appropriate.

It is in this light that one must look at the other assumption implied by the Bernardin report, to the effect that the bishops have some sort of superior moral insight into this matter. To be sure, there must be differences between Catholics and non-Catholics in the evaluation of this assumption. But even Catholics, who believe that their bishops have the authority to provide moral instruction that others lacks, must ask (and, as with O’Brien and Novak, have already asked) by what right these bishops assume that they can make detailed recommendations in this enormously complex area. Thus it is one thing for the bishops to say that American Catholics must unceasingly work toward nuclear disarmament; it is quite another if this as against that strategy toward that end is enjoined. If the whole body of the American episcopate, in spring 1983, says what the Bernardin reports says now, this action will be one expression of very fundamental irresponsibility —objectively so, however benign the intentions of the actors. Those responsible for the security of the country and for the maintenance of international peace will derive neither guidance nor comfort from such an action. If they are to be responsible, they will have to ignore the advice of the bishops. If they are Catholics, they will do so in great anguish of conscience. The bishops will have morally washed their own hands and they will have washed their hands of those who have to make the difficult and morally wrenching day-by-day political decisions. The latter will have to take it upon themselves, even with les mains sales, to do what they must reponsibly do — and they will have been left alone in this by the Catholic bishops of America.

The Bernardin report speaks of a “moment of supreme crisis,” which supposedly demands this kind of response from the bishops. That is a curious phrase. The “supreme crisis” has been present ever since the first nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan more than a generation ago — and, let it be noted, nuclear war has been avoided during this long period by precisely such policies as the bishops would now condemn. One does not have to be a mean-minded sociologist to question whether the bishops are simply responding to the moral challenge of nuclear weapons deployed (and, yes, threatened) by the Western alliance. There are more proximate reasons for all this moral agitation. The bishops are indeed responding (and, let it be stipulated, responding sincerely) to something that is out there in the real world. That something is the international peace movement, a broad coalition of miscellaneous disaffected groups in Western societies that (for reasons that cannot be elaborated here) have found considerable support within the Christian churches of the West. Nuclear disarmament is not the only item on the agenda of this coalition; it just happens to be the one that is politically most attractive at the moment. One very important item on the agenda is the politicization of the churches. In the Catholic case, this goal has been most fully explicated by so-called Liberation Theology. The Church is to become a political instrument in the service of those causes deemed just and liberating by a self- appointed vanguard of morally sensitized individuals.

Leave aside here the profound ecclesiological questions that such a notion raises, both for Catholics and for other Christians. On the practical level, the trouble is that there are many who do not agree with the moral and political agenda at issue, who regard as unjust and oppressive the allegedly liberating causes being espoused by the aforementioned elite. What is to become of these people?

Surely the bishops must entertain the hypothesis that they too have given serious thought to their position, that they have a moral conscience, that they want to act responsibly. Are they to be implicitly excommunicated, if not from the Catholic Church (canon law would hardly permit that), from the community of moral persons?

Novak has called the mentality expressed by the Bernardin report “sectarian.” To be sure, that is an applicable sociological category. But sects are usually apolitical. What is taking shape here is more worrisome. In the nineteenth century someone once described the Church of England as the Conservative Party gathered for prayer. Is the Catholic Church now to become the Liberal Left gathered around the altar? This should be a disturbing scenario even, perhaps especially, for American Catholics who locate themselves to the Left of the political center. The scenario ought to be chilling for Catholic bishops.

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Peter Ludwig Berger is an Austrian-born American sociologist known for his work in the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of religion, study of modernization, and theoretical contributions to sociological theory. He wrote this article during his time as a Professor at Boston University.

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