Dorothy Day, anti-war Catholic (photo from the Milwaukee Journal).
When Tony Blair converted to Roman Catholicism last Christmas eve, there was a great hullabaloo in the press as to whether there was a contradiction between his new denominational identity and his support for liberal policies on abortion and gay rights. Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell, went so far as to criticize Blair for leading “the most anti-family and anti-life government in recent history.”
Yet like many other Catholic critics, Bishop Devine was silent on an even more glaring contradiction: Blair’s most noteworthy political decision was his support of the American war effort in Iraq. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have both been strongly critical of this war, pointing out that it violates traditional Christian Just War doctrine. In 2002, before ascending to the papacy, Benedict flatly stated that the “concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” More recently, Benedict has lamented that nothing good has come out of the Iraq war.
When the history of the Iraq war is written, a chapter will have to be devoted to the silence of the Catholics. While the two Popes have been outspoken in decrying the policies of Bush and Blair, the Catholic church, both among the clergy and the laity, hasn’t played as significant role in the anti-war movement. (It is true that Michael Moore is a Catholic and he has cited his religion as a factor in his opposition to the war. But Moore’s Catholicism is hardly a significant visible part of his public identity, which is true of many other anti-war Catholics).
This relative silence is in striking contrast to both the Vietnam War and the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, when both ordained and unfrocked Catholics voiced significant dissent to American foreign policy: Dorothy Day and Father Daniel Berrigan was a fixture at Vietnam protest rallies and countless of churches in America heroically offered sanctuary to refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. It’s hard to think of any successors to Day and Berrigan or the sanctuary movement.
What accounts for the change? An old article article by Daniel McCarthy in the American Conservative offers a few clues:
1. One factor is the emergence of a group of prominent Catholic neo-conservatives (Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel) who have made rhetorically successful (although intellectually specious) arguments that Iraq is compatible with Just War theory. I don’t think the work of these thinkers will withstand scrutiny: they have an all too evident tendency to regard American nationalism as more important than Christian doctrine (as witness by Michael Novak’s complaint that Pope Benedict sounds like a typical European eager to “stick it to the Americans.” As if American national pride was the most important consideration when dealing with a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives). However dubious they might be as thinkers, Novak and company have muddied the waters enough to quiet mainstream Catholics who might have otherwise questioned the war.
2. McCarthy quotes an interesting observation made by the historian Andrew Bacevich, a conservative Catholic and eloquent opponent of American militarism, who noted that at the very time when the American church could have spoken out against the war, it was weakened by sex scandals.
3. There is a third factor, which McCarthy doesn’t mention but makes sense when we consider Bishop Devine’s criticism of Blair. To a significant degree, clerical leaders in Europe and North America have forged alliances with conservative political movements opposed to abortion and gay rights. These political alliances have made clergymen very comfortable in speaking out on social and cultural issues but unused to voicing the church’s teachings on economics and foreign policy. Allied as they are with powerful social conservative politicians like Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, Catholic leaders in the United States are reluctant to take on positions that would challenge the Republican coalition. In effect, parts of the church have become Republicans with clerical collars. This alliance between organized Catholicism and the political right is fraught with contradictions which will, I think, become gaping in time.