For modern folks like me, perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Church is her failure to be ambiguous. The Catholic moral code is frightfully clear about a long, long list of things, and leaves no wiggle room for those of us who’d rather form our consciences from papier-mâché and wishful thinking. For some 20 centuries, the greatest minds in the West meditated on Sacred Scripture, in the light of human reason, to form an elaborate and detailed tradition of moral reflection — whose most important conclusions have been canonized by papal or conciliar declarations, some of them infallible. Which is, of course, kind of a drag.
The most annoying intrusions of divine authority into the conduct of our own affairs occur when the Church attempts to channel and elevate our most primal instincts, the things pertaining to our animal nature — by which I mean principally having sex with people or killing them. You needn’t be a Freudian to recognize that these are two areas, historically, in which man hasn’t always lived up to the Boy Scouts Honor Code. If you made a movie of the Old Testament, its rating would waver between a wary R and a solid NC-17 — depending on whether or not Mel Gibson was directing. Nor are the histories of Greece or Rome particularly inspiring, what with all the wars of conquest, which yielded all those tantalizing slaves.
Things got significantly better in Europe with the arrival of the gospel — which undermined and finally eliminated slavery, gave women the right to marry or refuse, forbade men to abandon their aging wives for younger ones, and drove the Church to develop shockingly strict criteria for waging war.
St. Augustine did most of the heavy lifting in the construction of just war doctrine, whose most recent formulation you can find in the Catechism. The best job I can do of boiling down this complex teaching is the following, which I lift from my book The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song:
The Just War tradition specified that Christians should only take part in a war if it is
• In a good cause, i.e., to repel aggression or protect the innocent. (No, “revenge,” “a presidential sex scandal” or “an upcoming election” don’t count.)
• Waged by legitimate authorities.
• Reasonably likely to succeed.
• Unlikely, proportionately, to cause more harm than good.
• The last resort after attempted negotiations.
• Waged with the minimum force necessary, making every attempt to protect civilians.
These criteria take all the fun out of war — banning naked land-grabs, empire building, torture, mass-rape, fire-bombing cities, and the use of America’s 10,000 or so nukes for pretty much anything at all. Since the Just War tradition is such a buzz-kill, Christians of a certain kind often argue it away as cleverly as a canon lawyer wangling an annulment for a Kennedy.
In matters both of the bedroom and the battlefield, the Church tightened the screws on fallen human nature and imposed a code of conduct more rigorous than that found even in the Old Testament. If the kings of Israel had been permitted wars of conquest (with not much attention to the fate of enemy civilians), they could bed dozens of wives, and when necessary divorce them. The Church, citing Jesus’ words and their implications, recalled mankind to the higher standards implied in the Book of Genesis, and made herself the champion of peace.
To the lusty, land-hungry barbarians still moist from their recent baptism, the Church said essentially this: Sexual intercourse and killing are usually gravely evil — except in certain circumstances, such as self-defense or marriage. That’s a downbeat way of putting it, and I’m glad that John Paul II explored in his Theology of the Body the profound positive side of the Church’s teaching on sexuality. But there’s no soft-peddling the fact that compared to paganism, the Church demands that men spend a great deal more of our lives with swords, well, sheathed.
Of course, Catholics constantly fell short of these outrageous rules, whose fulfillment is only possible with constant infusions of actual Grace. But they could never do so in good conscience, since the Church was unwavering in repeating these “hard sayings.” Man’s two most fundamental impulses must be ruthlessly diverted into the channels of justice: marital sex, and defensive war. These levees too rarely hold, but their very presence tends toward keeping us honest, like a wedding ring that just won’t come off. Henry VIII felt the need to marry each of six wives in a church — even if he had to found a whole new Church in which to do it. Likewise, the most aggressive Christian kings were constrained to search for justifications for their invasions and honor-feuds that offered at least the appearance of meeting just war criteria.
The Crusades — which nowadays we are required to ritually denounce three times a day, while facing Mecca — were launched in defense of Christendom and the still-majority Christian population of the Holy Land living under Islamic occupation. Of course, even wars that the pope himself declares are just rarely turn out well for the civilians in the area. The most arguably justified Crusade, the first, saw the liberation of Jerusalem — and the massacre of many of its inhabitants.
Over the centuries, even combatants whose cause was obviously just — for instance, Britain and America fighting Japan and Nazi Germany — have employed means that the Church severely criticizes, such as the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. With the invention of weapons that cannot be used discriminately — such as the “city-busting” nuclear bombs that, for some reason we and Russia are still pointing at each other — Church leaders have grown increasingly skeptical about the practice of modern war. Of course, they no more blunder into the heresy of pacifism than the sternest orthodox Desert Father ever thought to demand universal celibacy. (It took the “spiritual” Franciscans to get condemned as heretics for trying to foist the Evangelical Counsels onto laymen as a condition for salvation.) So relax, guys — no one’s trying to take away your swords.
Still, the Church has been sufficiently scathed by the memory of bishops blessing the troops on both sides as they marched into the meaningless slaughter of World War I to adopt a more rigorous attitude toward rationalizations for war. Since Pope Benedict XV poured out his heart trying to conciliate that conflict, Church leaders have striven manfully to talk nations off the ledge, before they plunged into the butchery of battle. Sometimes, of course, war cannot be avoided — for instance, when an aggressor like Adolph Hitler is on the march. History proved that some dictators cannot be contained.
But others can. (Even Stalin could.) There isn’t really a Hitler hiding in every hut — and if we let ourselves get whipped into a frenzy over every apparent threat to our national interests, we will make excuses for military actions that are unjustified and unnecessary, which means that they are sinful. Since we’re talking about millions of human lives, I daresay they might be mortally sinful.
We should at least consider the question, instead of dismissing the Church’s teaching on war and peace as blithely as liberals do her teaching on birth control. If we don’t, we might just look . . . ridiculous. As I daresay a number of theologians look today, for proposing that the Vatican revise the Church’s teaching on just war to address the overwhelming threat of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.
Sometimes an historical moment in fact threatens to be a replay of October 1938, when weak Western leaders appeased a ruthless aggressor. But there are other times when our leaders are acting more like the ninnies of 1914. We have a grave duty as citizens and Christians to carefully discern which is which — and not simply to repeat the press releases that come out of a friendly administration.
We also must resist the shrill voice of nationalism, which tempts us to believe that our values, our way of life, are eternally true and should rightly be imposed on others through the use of force. (Can you think of any great empire that didn’t say the same?) We must not mistake our flawed but worthy system of government for the Kingdom of God on earth, and our enemies for devils.
But this is the central assertion of “national greatness conservatism” — the muscular, interventionist foreign policy championed by Sen. John McCain, so dubbed by his most enthusiastic supporters (many of whom are Catholic). It insists that Western liberal democracy is the right system of government right now, for everyone in the world — and that such a system was always and everywhere the proper model for human society. The Catholic monarchies and mixed systems of government that built up our civilization were sad compromises of men who were ignorant of all the moral wisdom that we modern Americans possess. We can feel a little sorry for them, for the likes of St. Louis IX. The poor man couldn’t really help it: He was French.
As Catholics who really believe that the cafeteria has closed, we have no right to snicker at the liberals who stock up on the granola of peace and justice, while we load our own trays with red meat mandates that mostly center on the bedroom.
Sometimes, folks — and I’m really sorry to have to break the news — but sometimes killing people really is as bad as sleeping with them. Even if you’re doing it under our flag.