Late Edition: Busy Bishops

In the midst of the gravest scandal in the history of American Catholicism, one might suppose that the bureaucracy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had more than enough to keep itself occupied. Dream on. Alas, even while lawsuits multiply and prominent ordinaries are being forced to account for their stewardship before civil and criminal courts, diverse USCCB committees continue to grind away. For them, it’s business as usual.

In late August, for example, the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) decided that kneeling to receive Holy Communion would henceforth be a forbidden practice in American dioceses. Authentic Catholic teaching may be in disarray from grammar school to university; free-form, sloppy, and even impious liturgical practices may be found in many dioceses; barely 40 percent of American Catholics may attend Mass regularly, and many schoolchildren may have trouble reciting the Ten Commandments; confession may be a dying sacrament, seminaries may be empty, and spiritual formation of the clergy a forgotten discipline. But the BCL knows a mortal peril to the Faith when it sees one: It’s those disruptive types who insist on kneeling to receive the Eucharist. Now we’ll all be able to sleep at night.

While the BCL worked to ensure that communion lines would be standing-room only, the administrative committee—at 60-strong, fewer by far than the number of lawyers hired by various dioceses to deal with sexual scandals—asked USCCB president Bishop Wilton D. Gregory to instruct the president of the United States on the moral norms that ought to govern American policy toward Iraq.

With all due respect, the resulting letter of September 13 is unlikely to rank with the more memorable invocations of Just War principles. For one thing, its timing was unfortunate. Bush had by then already reminded the United Nations of its failure to enforce its own resolutions against Iraq, and negotiations had begun on the wording of a congressional resolution supporting U.S. military intervention. Whatever the intent of the USCCB instruction, it arrived after the central thrust of administration policy had already been determined.

Its content did not fare much better. Let it be said at once that the principles of the Just War tradition are never out of fashion and that civil authorities need to be reminded about their moral obligations. Let it also be said that the use of preemptive force to effect a regime change in Iraq is a debatable proposition. But considering the aggressive malignancy of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, whether that policy is problematic on moral (as opposed to prudential) grounds is another matter. The president’s several major addresses, along with their supporting documentation, certainly make a plausible case for preemptive military action. Although reasonable people clearly differ on the wisdom of his policy, it is (to put it mildly) a stretch to say that it runs afoul of the Just War tradition.

Yet that is precisely what Bishop Gregory’s letter implied, without actually making that argument. The letter reiterated well-known norms of Just War casuistry and invoked the authority of the Catechism and the Holy See to the same effect. But it did so at such a high level of abstraction as to render the letter almost wholly useless as a guide to the matter at hand.

The longer-run significance of the letter may lie elsewhere. In four instances, it questioned the moral legitimacy of “unilateral” or, alternatively, “preemptive, unilateral” military force. Whether the principal objection was to preemption or to unilateralism it did not say. But let that pass. The important point, nowhere acknowledged in the letter, is that thoughtful devotees of the Just War tradition may be found on all sides of both issues. That very fact suggests that no precise or direct correlation exists between the morally obligatory features of the tradition and questions of the sort raised by unilateral or preemptive military action.

What, then, was the purpose of the bishops’ letter? Are we to understand that the Just War tradition has now effectively incorporated contemporary liberal criticisms of energetic American leadership and the preventive use of military force? If so, the bishops had an obligation to tell us so and to make a reasoned argument to that effect. In lieu of argument, however, the letter merely declaims, insinuating a moral condemnation of the president’s policy without having the courage to state it.

  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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