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Bush vs. Benedict

Catholic neoconservatives grapple with their church’s Just War tradition.

Four months into the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, it is too soon to say what will distinguish the new pontiff’s tenure from that of his epochal predecessor—beyond the safe prediction that it will be shorter. But continuities are already clear: like John Paul II, Benedict will stand firm in the church’s teachings on sexual morality and the sanctity of human life. And like John Paul II, the new pope is a man of peace whose vision for the world does not include wars of the sort lately waged against Iraq.

The priority Benedict places on peace was apparent even in his choice of name. The sixth century St. Benedict had brought monasticism to the West, becoming a patron saint of Europe. This German pope reaffirmed the church’s commitment to the historical heartland of Christianity by his choice—as if to say that Europe is not to be surrendered either to secularism or surging Islam. But above all, he paid tribute to Benedict XV, the “Peace Pope” who occupied the Throne of St. Peter in the harrowing days of World War I. The new pope made the connection explicit on April 27 in remarks he made at his first general audience:

I chose to call myself Benedict XVI ideally as a link to the venerated pontiff Benedict XV, who guided the Church through the turbulent times of the First World War. He was a true and courageous prophet of peace who struggled strenuously and bravely, first to avoid the drama of war and then to limit its terrible consequences. In his footsteps I place my ministry, in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples, profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is above all a gift from God, a fragile and precious gift to be invoked, safeguarded and constructed, day after day and with everyone’s contribution.

Conservatives of almost all stripes had cause to rejoice in Ratzinger’s election, as even non-Catholics among them saw in him a man who would uphold the values dear to them. An ephemeral but telling sign of his support was the presence on the Internet of sites announcing themselves as the “Ratzinger Fanclub” and “Protestants for Ratzinger.” The new pope would be a sure ally for the Right in the Culture War. But where hot wars are concerned, many of Ratzinger’s most ardent admirers—Catholic neoconservatives especially—find themselves diametrically at odds with the pope.

Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus are three of the most prominent Catholic neocons whose reading of Just War doctrine clashes with the views of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Novak and Neuhaus fit the classic mold: they were radicals in the 1960s and early 1970s, both involved in protesting the Vietnam War. Neuhaus—a Lutheran pastor before his 1991 conversion to Catholicism—founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam alongside Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Novak co-wrote with Heschel and Robert M. Brown Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience. By the 1980s, both had moved rightward, trading social democracy for Novak’s “democratic capitalism.” Today, they and Weigel, a biographer of John Paul II whose ideological background is less exotic, champion an interpretation of Just War theory that strongly favors the foreign policy of George W. Bush.

Disseminating the views of Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel—and often making bolder statements in defense of the administration than the big three themselves—are such journals as Crisis, co-founded by Novak, and First Things, established and until recently edited by Neuhaus. In October 2004, Crisis ran a cover story touting “The Case for an American Empire”; four months later, it published an article calling for the return of the draft. First Things has, by contrast, been more genteel, even publishing a debate on war and statecraft between Weigel and the Church of England’s Rowan Williams. But a recent article by the journal’s new editor, Joseph Bottum, suggests the underlying tendency. In “The New Fusionism,” arguing for an alliance between neoconservatives and social conservatives, Bottum laments, “Much of the Roman curia seems to have fallen into a functional pacifism that threatens a damaging loss of the traditional Catholic theory of just war.”

Writing in National Review Online—a venue not explicitly Catholic or neoconservative but colored by both—shortly after the death of John Paul II, University of Reading philosophy professor David Oderberg put the neocon line bluntly. “When it comes to applying tradition to life-and-death moral issues”—such as the Iraq War—“Bush 43 wins hands down over John Paul II.” George Weigel or Michael Novak would never write such a thing, but the conclusion is one to which their arguments readily lead. Where foreign policy is concerned, for the Catholic neoconservative, it is Bush si, Benedict no.

The new pope and his predecessor have been consistent—some, like Osterberg, would say to a fault—in taking the most restrictive possible view in favor of life in matters of capital importance, whether abortion, the death penalty, or war. Neoconservative Catholics have met this papal position with defiance. They point out, correctly, that abortion and war are not parallel—the former is wrong in all instances, the latter permissible in some. Novak and Neuhaus also take care to emphasize the wording of Section 2309 of the Catholic Catechism, which states that deciding when the conditions for a just war have been met “belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good”—meaning the Bush administration, as they would have it.

Yet war is a matter of both moral judgment and prudential judgment. The church is not competent to deduce the likelihood of strategic success or to address other purely prudential considerations of Just War doctrine. But there remain moral considerations in going to war about which a pope certainly can speak with authority, if not with infallibility. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict—whose intellect neoconservative Catholics have in other contexts praised —needs reminding about what the Catechism says. In Benedict’s case, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he supervised its recent abridgement. In a May 2003 interview reported by Rome’s Zenit news service, Ratzinger was asked about the justice of the Iraq War in light of the Catechism. He agreed that Just War doctrine may require revision, as Weigel and other Catholic neoconservatives have suggested—but in a more, not less, restrictive direction.

The pope [John Paul II] expressed his thought with great clarity, not only as his individual thought but as the thought of a man who is knowledgeable in the highest functions of the Catholic Church. Of course, he did not impose this position as doctrine of the Church but as the appeal of a conscience enlightened by faith. The Holy Father’s judgment is also convincing from a rational point of view: There was not sufficient reasons to unleash a war in Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war.’

As for “preventive war,” Ratzinger flatly stated in September 2002, the “concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” The then-cardinal’s remarks also suggested that the United Nations, rather than George W. Bush, would be the proper public authority to decide upon war with Iraq: “the United Nations … should make the final decision,” he said. “It is necessary that the community of nations makes the decision, not a particular power.”

The doctrine of papal infallibility does not, of course, extend to Benedict’s remarks as a cardinal nor even, for that matter, to any of John Paul’s opinions about the Iraq War, however well informed they were. But there is no mistaking the gravity of their views. If, as both men believed, the attack on Iraq in 2003 was unjust, support for the war becomes unconscionable. Novak, Neuhaus, and Weigel have spent much of their careers battling relativism, arguing forcefully that there is moral truth at the core of even the most contentious and divisive issues. There is a moral truth, they would surely agree, at the heart of the Iraq War—the justice of the war is not something that is ultimately moot or merely a question of perspective. The war in Iraq is a matter of moral right and wrong. Catholic neoconservatives say it was right; Benedict says it was wrong.

Faithful Catholics of conservative disposition face a difficult choice here. Their president, the Republican Party, and the leading Catholic intellectuals who identify themselves as conservatives all support a policy that the pope opposes. Yet the antiwar movement seems at a glance to consist of people whose values are unalterably opposed to a Catholic’s—a motley collection of secular leftists, many of them supporters of abortion and homosexual marriage. Even the history of faithful antiwar Catholics in America has since World War II been marked by radicalism and outright pacifism, from Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers Movement to Fr. Daniel Berrigan.

There is, however, a conservative alternative, one that does not have the financial reach or media savvy of the neoconservative press but which has a long and venerable history and which agrees with the pope on hot wars and the culture wars alike. This brand of antiwar Catholicism is to be found in periodicals like The Wanderer, a 138-year-old newspaper based in Minnesota, and the considerably younger New Oxford Review.

The price paid by antiwar Catholic conservatives for upholding the pope’s thought in foreign policy as well as in cultural battles at home has been ostracism from the respectable Right. Even the late Brent Bozell, a founding father of postwar conservatism—William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law, ghostwriter for Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative—found himself marginalized after he and the Catholic magazine he founded, Triumph, began to grow critical of the Vietnam War. The conservative movement that has built itself a big tent in so many other respects still counts dissent in the foreign-policy arena as an excommunicable offense.

Yet in the end, American Catholics are not faced with a choice between conservatism and their faith—conservatives in the realist, anti-militarist traditions of George Kennan, Robert Nisbet, Russell Kirk, and the 1930s Old Right have always held foreign-policy views compatible with Benedict’s. But between what commonly passes for conservatism today, as represented by the president’s Iraq policy, and the vision of the pope there is an unbridgeable gap, on one side or the other of which American Catholics will have to take a stand.

Andrew Bacevich, himself a Catholic and a conservative, observes in The New American Militarism, “If in the aftermath of the Cold War a religious counterweight to the evangelical influence on U.S. policy were to have emerged, that counterweight ought to have been the Roman Catholic Church. Great in numbers, political influence, and material resources, with anti-Catholicism largely a thing of the past, the church was eminently well-positioned to put its stamp on public policy.” But the opportunity was squandered by a hierarchy enmeshed in scandal. This makes the efforts of lay Catholic leaders and individual priests—people like Novak, Weigel, and Neuhaus—all the more important. Lately there have been hints that Neuhaus, at least, is beginning to re-evaluate his support for the Iraq War (“There is a lively and legitimate argument about whether, knowing what we know now, this war was justified and necessary”) even as he still makes excuses for the president (“leaders do not have the convenience of making decisions retrospectively”). Perhaps Novak and Weigel, reflecting upon Pope Benedict’s thought, will follow suit. More likely, Catholics in search of a consistent application of the principles of their faith to the realm of foreign policy will have to look to the periphery of the conservative movement—and, of course, to Rome.