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Drew ChristiansenOctober 20, 2008

George Weigel and I appeared on the same platform together last week at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. Over the years we have sparred across think-tank seminar tables and in the pages of journals like America, especially over the interpretation of the just war tradition. The topic for our joint appearance in Omaha was “The Challenge of Peace: 25 Years Later,” a look back at the U.S. bishops’ 1983 peace pastoral and the subsequent development of Catholic teaching and advocacy on issues of peace and war.

Mr. Weigel’s critique of the pastoral letter focused primarily on its formulation of issues in the narrow terms of arms control rather than in the broader geopolitical context of the struggle for liberty in eastern Europe, a contest he chronicled in his book The Final Revolution, an account of the nonviolent campaign for workers’ rights and democracy in Poland. In the end, what had been booked as a debate turned out to be a conversation. For I had tried, in the opening of my talk, to show the shift in Catholic social teaching away from just war and toward nonviolence. The church’s official teaching now embraces what I call a composite position: nonviolence but when that fails, just war–—the justified, limited and accountable use of force.

Mr. Weigel and I agreed even on the abolition of nuclear weapons as a goal of foreign military policy and nonproliferation as a challenge of the day, with Weigel citing the Kissinger-Nunn-Perry-Schultz proposal for a nuclear-free world and me, for my part, quoting the bishops’ 1993 statement The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, which called for the abolition of nuclear weapons as a policy goal.

What tension there was in the auditorium came not from us speakers, as it turned out, but from the audience. I was repeatedly asked why the bishops are not more prophetic. George pointed out that in our individualistic, hedonistic culture, they are prophetic on issues relating to the beginning and end of life. In 1983, of course, The Challenge of Peace was viewed as prophetic, because it was an open challenge to the nuclear war-fighting policies of the Reagan administration. The bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, was also considered prophetic. But why do the bishops today not seem prophetic on issues other than abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research?

One major reason is the media. The drafting of The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All was a public affair, with early texts disseminated for public input. Later public acceptance of those texts was due in large part to the wide public discussion they had received. In choosing to draft their statements in more controlled circumstances, with diverse but much smaller input from outside, the bishops have sacrificed the free publicity they received in the mid-80s. As a result, much of the good work the conference does on such issues as torture, peacemaking and the environment just does not get covered.

Furthermore, among many who would press the bishops to be “more prophetic,” there are expectations about prophecy that are unrealistic, especially when directed to the conference of bishops. Bishops are primarily pastors, not prophets; and especially when they are gathered in large numbers, as the U.S. conference is, they will tend to act pastorally, attending to the spiritual needs of a diverse community. Being prophetic, by contrast involves confrontation and risks producing division. A small bishops’ conference, like Guatemala’s, may be prophetic. Because there can be more cohesion and trust in a smaller group, it can be more deliberate and concerted in the policies it pursues.

Finally, expectations of prophecy assume that morality and even policy can be stated in absolute, black-and-white terms. A composite position on nonviolence and the just war, like that of the U.S. bishops and the Vatican, tends to disappoint radicals on both sides, pacificists and just warriors alike. The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace made an important contribution by affirming that nonviolence should shape our public institutions, employing preventive diplomacy, threat reduction centers, conflict transformation measures and so on. But there has been little effort to institutionalize nonviolence this way. Romanticism about nonviolence as a lonely, personal vocation has blocked the Catholic social imagination from promoting new social inventions for peace. There are times when lonely prophecy is necessary; but at others a narrow prophetic style can impede the path to peace.

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15 years 9 months ago
I appreciate Father Christiansen’s presentation of the dynamics involved in the U.S. Bishop’s Pastoral Letter, “The Challenge of Peace.” Back in those days, I was an evangelical Protestant. Let me tell you, that pastoral letter in 1983 rocked our evangelical world. People in my circle were beginning to gain a better awareness of social conditions, but no Baptists that I knew of in my own church even thought of publicly challenging U.S. policy regarding peace and disarmament. Before 1983, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a U.S. Catholic Bishops pastoral letter. That year, however, I took note as if it were from my own pastor. I even started paying attention to pastoral letters in the years that followed, fascinated by such a witness to Christian life in the real world. Long story short, I am now a practicing Roman Catholic. I have felt that in recent years, “the glory has departed” from the prophetic witness given by the U.S. Bishops. There has been such an emphasis on single issue voting, that I’ve heard very little from bishops about the U.S. involvement in a war that Pope John Paul II warned would be “a failure of humanity.” I am also saddened by a revisionist trend to rewrite Vatican II. Reading Father’s comments here gives me a new perspective into what was happening in the development of those pastoral letters in 1983 and 1986. Still, I wish the bishops would revisit those days and ask how they might do something similar in today’s context. In reality, they don’t necessarily have to be “prophetic” in every pastoral letter, but more relevance along with better engagement and dialogue with society (and the flock) would go a long way toward producing leadership that once again rocks our world and aids our Christian walk.
Marie Dennis
15 years 8 months ago
I agree with Father Christiansen that the the bishops' documents are not widely disseminated or read, despite the important, even prophetic, insights they often contain. By facilitating a narrow discussion between themselves and a few experts rather than a broad, fully engaged Catholic debate about serious ethical issues in the political arena, I believe the bishops have undercut their own role as teachers and as pastors. But even more seriously, they have failed to hold the United States, including all of us who are citizens, to account for failing to follow the guidance they gave, for example, in the "Challenge of Peace" and again in the "Harvest of Justice." The military budget decried by the bishops in 1993 was a "mere" $275 billion; how can they not be furious about the $800 billion we now pour into that same coffer? A second example: In 1973 and again in 1993 the bishops agreed to the "strictly conditioned" possession of nuclear weapons, but 35 years later the conditions have not been met. The United States has demonstrated neither an active commitment to its own nuclear disarmament (while taking some weapons out of service the U.S. remains in active pursuit of reliable nuclear capability), nor to the development of a peaceful global context conducive to total nuclear disarmament. Why have the bishops not publicly withdrawn their "strictly conditioned" acceptance of nuclear deterrence? And a third example: Prior to the present war in Iraq, the Vatican and the U.S. bishops said quite clearly that they did not think the war met the criteria for a "just war." But why, once the war began, did they not make that assessment crystal clear to policy makers, the general public and Catholics? All bishops might not be called to be prophets, but as teachers, pastors and religious leaders they should have a voice that can be heard.
15 years 8 months ago
Drew Christiansen's "Of Many Things" (10/20), asked "But why do the bishops today not seem prophetic on issues other than abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research?" He cited the lack of media exposure and unrealistic expectations. A major reason he did not mention is the bishops' reluctance to promote Catholic Social Teaching, which remains the Church's 'best kept secret'. How many times, for example, have we read in diocesan papers about the "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" or of other specific social teaching, even when it is issued by their own Conference? Francis X. Doyle
15 years 8 months ago
On this feast of SS Simon and Jude (27 October), it's instructive to remember that Simon was nicknamed "The Zealot." If one out of the Twelve merits the name, could we not at least have one out of the twelve successors of the Apostles be noted for his zealousness for peace? On November 11, 2008 7 to 9 pm, at SS Philips and James Church, 29th & Charles Streets, Baltimore, Pax Christi Baltimore will celebrate the feast of St Martin of Tours who left the military saying "I am a soldier of Christ, and it is not lawful for me to fight." We will honor Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, executed for refusing induction to fight in an unjust war, and we will hear Joshua Casteel American convert to Catholicism who sought and received an honorable discharge from the US Army as a conscientioius objector to war, having earlier served as an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. That very day the US bishops will be meeting in the Baltimore Waterfront Hotel. Wouldn't it be appropriate to expect that one out of twelve be zealous enough for peace to join us for the occasion, or will the people of God once again be left to wage peace without its pastors? By the way, some of us will also present to each of the Bishops a letter urging him to be more prophetic regarding peacemaking despite Father Christiansen's labeling such efforts as "romanticism about nonviolence." Fr. Bernard Survil

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