American First or Christian First?

May 1987By Gordon C. Zahn

Gordon C. Zahn is National Director of the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War in the Boston area, and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. His books include German Catholics and Hitler's Wars and In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter.

Peace in a Nuclear Age: The Bishops' Pastoral Letter in Perspective.  Edited by Charles J. Reid, Jr.. Catholic University of America Press. 426 pages. $44.95.

"The Bishops' Pastoral Letter in Perspective" is what the book's jacket promises; but what it really provides is a variety of perspectives - few, if any, of which are completely favorable to the 1983 peace pastoral. This should not surprise. As a collection of papers, the volume is predictably academic in tone and, in customary fashion, carefully avoids unrestrained denunciation or approval. The most pronounced exceptions are the contributions of two non-academic ideologists: a Republican Congressman and a "Catholic advisor" to President Reagan. In their strident and incredibly shallow anti-communism, these two essays lend a possibly undeserved aura of wisdom to the others.

Edward N. Luttwak dismisses the pastoral as "one of those ‘faddish' documents that are produced by people who succumb to surrounding social pressures and accept opinions not their own." Others, like Michael Novak and George Weigel, who might share his conviction that the document merely demonstrates the bishops' incompetence in matters diplomatic and strategic, are not quite that blunt in making the point. Overall, those who give the pastoral a poor grade clearly outnumber the others who - like Bryan Hehir and Alan Geyer, with his "two and three-fourths cheers" - rate it as deserving something better.

Moreover, lacking is a fair representation of the Catholic pacifist perspective to balance the criticism of the Realpolitik enthusiasts. Surely that perspective deserved a hearing, even though it is scarcely less negative in its criticism of the document for its "strictly limited moral acceptance" of the continuing production, possession, and preparation to use weapons designed and already targeted to commit crimes condemned by popes and Vatican II.

John Yoder and the other representatives of non-Catholic (or at least non-Roman) religious communions do this to some extent, but their status as outside onlookers limits the force of their arguments. Pacifist criticism from within the Catholic flock no doubt would have been more tolerant and forgiving than that issuing from the defenders of current national policy. Even so a frank and candid discussion comparing the compromises and retreats of the final version with the more courageous and forthright posture of its second draft would have added an important dimension to the evaluation.

I shall not attempt to assess each essay. There are, however, three issues that demand more extended comment.

The first concerns the record of early Christianity with respect to war and military service, in particular John Helgeland's cavalier dismissal of the standard works of Cadoux and Bainton and all the others "who followed them like the dogs that followed the wagon trains across the prairie." One must assume that rather contemptuous characterization applies to Louis Swift's statement: "Until about the year A.D. 170 there is precious little evidence of Christian sympathy for war and military service anywhere in the Roman Empire." Even Luttwak, no friend of the pastoral, seems to share the more traditional view when he writes: "It would take a suspiciously sophisticated reader to find in the original Christian revelation, the sayings and exempla of Jesus Christ, any approval for the use of force."

One looks in vain for substantive evidence for Helgeland's revisionism. His argument rests upon dubious interpretative projections based upon the use of military analogies and metaphors (sometimes found in the very documents that support the Cadoux/Bainton position) and the cultural pitfalls (apostasy associated with the imperial oath) presented by military life. He stretches the argument to find significance in the failure of Hippolytus to specifically condemn Christians in combat in the context of the Canons denouncing Christians who seek or accept military service and honors.

Helgeland subtitles his essay "The Sociology of Idolatry." Yet he ignores what, to this sociologist at least, is a crucial test of the available data. There is such a thing as a "selectivity of history" which must be taken into account. Data and documentation favorable to the dominant authorities always have a greater likelihood of preservation than those favorable to a dissident, or persecuted, minority. The absence of any tangible evidence to support the Helgeland position - or, conversely, the unanimity of the teachings in the Christian documents of that time available to us - strongly indicates that, as Stanley Windass put it in his book, Christianity versus Violence, pacifism was the only "stream of thought" in the early Church. (Of course, it might also be that the absence of evidence of a contrary "stream" could be due to suppression by the religious authorities of the early Church; but this would only strengthen the traditional position Helgeland rejects.)

My other two comments are more general in scope. Most of these essays concentrate, as do most discussions of the peace pastoral, on its relevance to, and potential impact upon, "public policy" and "public debate." This is a perfectly justifiable concern, of course, but it should not obscure the importance of the document as a pastoral document, with its direct relevance to Catholics in the pews.

From this perspective special praise is due the thoroughly documented contribution of Robert A. Destro, possibly the most valuable of all the essays in the entire volume. His analysis and discussion of the pastoral's behavioral implications as they relate to conscientious objection, with special emphasis upon selective conscientious objection, are not limited to actual military service; he carries them over to the broader issues of employment in war industry and other forms of direct participation in war and preparations for war.

As one who has consistently rejected the "just war" teachings which, as the bishops put it, have been "in possession" for the past 1,500 years, it may seem strange that I consider the pastoral's careful exposition of those teachings and the conditions upon which they rest one of its major contributions. What has, until now, been an esoteric discussion among theological specialists is spelled out for the ordinary Catholic who, one assumes, is to form his conscience accordingly when confronted with an actual war and the call to participate in it directly or indirectly. Unfortunately, along came Grenada, an exercise of military force that ignored or violated at least three, if not all, those conditions of the "just war." Except for the usual heroic few, the bishops, who had voted for the pastoral with near-unanimity, had nothing to say! It is to be hoped that the Destro article will receive the attention it deserves before the next test (in Central America perhaps?) presents itself.

Finally, my most basic misgiving of all. Taken in their totality, these essays give virtually no attention to what should have been the underlying issue: given a conflict between moral judgment and obligation on the one hand and the demands of national security on the other, which is to have priority?

Some contributors are more blunt about it than others, but almost every writer makes (or at least implies) a distinction between the bishops' generally conceded authority in defining and applying the principles of morality and their lack of expertise (some seem to suggest total incompetence) in matters diplomatic and strategic. The bishops themselves acknowledge this disadvantage in their pastoral - a disadvantage they took pains to overcome by engaging in extensive consultations with acknowledged and experienced experts.

So here we have a collection of scholars, most of them presumably Catholic, discussing and evaluating the document to which so much time and effort were devoted and doing so in the setting of what many, including this loyal alumnus, regard as the flagship of Catholic higher education in this country. The variety of perspectives represented in this volume is not surprising, nor is it necessarily something to be regretted. What is troubling is the ease with which so many seem to dismiss the bishops' moral findings as essentially irrelevant to the question of peace in a nuclear age.

Yet, lurking under the cover of the public policy debate is the question of priorities: Is the individual's ultimate identity to be defined as Christian or as American? None of the contributors put the question in so many words - and certainly none chose it as the subject of his contribution - but it is there. It is a choice every Catholic will have to face if the war that is forbidden becomes a reality.

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