In the midst of the debate over whether the United States–led war to disarm Iraq was just, U.S. Catholics found themselves in a rather precarious position. On the one hand, forming their opinions from what they’d heard from a wide variety of experts and pundits while patriotically desiring to be faithful to their nation and her leaders, many American Catholics believed war with Iraq was necessary. However, on the other hand, being devoted to their Church, they questioned the validity of their nation’s and their own position when they saw the Holy Father and the Vatican so vehemently opposed to the war. How were they to reconcile the two and arrive at a solid and morally feasible position?
There were sound arguments on both sides for and against the moral uprightness of the U.S.–led military strike. And because of the intricacies of the situation and the passions of those involved, the debate on whether or not a war is truly just could continue ad infinitum. Eventually, though, the one with the responsibility to render a judgment has to make a decision and act. Otherwise, the moral life is a pointless, nihilistic exercise—especially when it comes to the possibility of war. States and their leaders are given clearly defined principles that compose the just-war theory, and it’s their obligation to apply those principles to specific situations.
Herein lies the answer to the conundrum so many American Catholics faced—an answer clearly spelled out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. After enumerating the principles of the just-war theory, the Catechism states, “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy [of war] belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”
Indeed, U.S. Catholics ought to listen to and respect the voice of the Holy See when it speaks on the situation with Iraq, weighing what it says heavily in their minds and hearts. But it is the clear teaching of the Catholic Church that President George W. Bush—the one in charge of the common good of our country—has the ultimate authority to make his prudential judgment and to decide on the justness of a strike against Iraq.
In the weighty decision of waging war, the virtue of justice relies on the virtue of prudence to establish the just means. The Catechism states that prudence “is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” Prudence perfects our practical reason, which does not deal so much with theory in itself as theory ordered toward action. Prudence hones our moral insight in order that we might clearly see the reality of the situation with which we are faced. Prudence’s ultimate goal is human moral action in concrete circumstances—what is practically the right thing to do here and now in this particular situation.
Properly understanding prudence and its role in the moral decision-making process, we can then determine whether President Bush exhibited the major characteristics of a prudent man. We, of course, hope that he had an adequate understanding of both the principles of just-war theory and the reality of the very complex situation in Iraq. Additionally, we trust that the president sought counsel from both supernatural and natural forces. In the supernatural realm we must rely on his claim that he’s a prayerful man seeking the guidance of the Lord during these troubling times. In the natural realm we presume that he had received counsel from political, military, and religious advisers—in particular the Holy Father. In such instances, of course, President Bush has to be willing to listen to and consider what they have to say. And he has to avoid any signs of imprudence such as precipitation, thoughtlessness, negligence, or inconstancy. If he has done all these things, we must trust his decision to go to war if he deems it necessary.
This description of prudence might sound shocking to those who often equate prudence with cowardice and hesitation. However, the Catechism teaches that the virtue of prudence “is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation.” The virtue of prudence does not avoid situations where one is called to be brave but enables the individual to stand up to challenges. The virtue of prudence presumably helped President Bush make the decision to inaugurate military action even though great numbers stood in opposition to him and his decision might anger the entire Muslim world.
Ultimately, by looking to the Church’s teaching and properly understanding the principles of prudence in regards to just-war theory, faithful Catholics will be able to assuage the tremors of their conscience with the decision of President Bush.
But it’s important to remember (and this is the crux of the issue) that the virtue of prudence does not afford us a pure certainty that the decision made was the morally correct one. It can only offer us a prudential certainty. Even if experience disappoints, the prudent man acts only as seems proper right here and now. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that prudence will never remove all anxiety as to whether we made the correct decision or not. The prudent leader should not expect absolute certainty or else he’ll never take action. However, he can be confident in acting with a clear conscience if he honestly did the best he could to render a prudential decision.
Therefore, the question American Catholics—and really all reasonable people—should be asking themselves is not so much if war with Iraq was just, but whether George W. Bush is capable of rendering an adequate prudential judgment. It is he who’s responsible for the final decision and its outcome. We might side with the Vatican and disagree with a decision to wage war—and in conscience, we have every right to do so. But at the same time, if we’re to be faithful and honest Catholics, we must respect Bush’s prudential decision as not only his right but his obligation.