Catholic leaders across the United States reacted with sorrow and "heavy hearts" to a mass…
A teachable moment for Catholic leaders
The politicization of every aspect of human life, a process that (as I mentioned in a previous column) has been underway since the Renaissance, has had some unexpected consequences.
It’s not surprising to find governments and politicians encroaching on the rights of churches and attempting to redefine freedom of religion (which threatens the supremacy of politics) as freedom to worship (which keeps religion confined within church walls). What is surprising, though, is the extent to which Christian leaders voluntarily accept these limits and shy away from opportunities to reveal the transformative power of the Gospel.
The various Protestant communities have some excuse, since their roots lie in the same historical era when the nation-state came into being and politics began to burst through the limits in which it had been kept in the ancient and medieval worlds. But Catholics should know better, not just because Catholic social teaching places politics within its proper, limited sphere, but because we have a history on which we can look back, a history in which everyone from emperors to kings to barbarian warlords recognized that the truths the Catholic Church taught flowed from a moral authority that runs deeper and extends beyond the limits of political authority.
And yet, especially here in the United States, Catholic leaders all too often remain silent when opportunities arise to shine the light of the Gospel in situations that are deemed political. Whether out of a tacit acceptance of the idea that the political sphere is more all-encompassing than the religious one, or just out of a fear of being seen as “taking sides,” Catholic leaders refrain from using certain “teachable moments” to, well, teach.
During the recent unpleasantness between the United States and Iran, Church leaders called, as they should, for both countries to look for ways to back away from the brink of war. But no one that I saw took the opportunity presented by a tweet from President Donald Trump to expose a broader audience to the Church’s ancient and lasting teaching on the conditions for a just war.
On Jan. 5, President Trump tweeted that “should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back … .” So far, so good: Countries have a right to defend themselves and a duty to defend their citizens. (And that goes both ways — no single country in a conflict has an exclusive right to self-defense.)
The teachable moment surfaced as the tweet continued: “& perhaps in a disproportionate manner.” Whether President Trump used the word “disproportionate” with full knowledge of its implications is irrelevant, as is the question of what one thinks of Trump in general, and of the recent unpleasantness with Iran in particular.
What is relevant is the central role that proportionality plays in Catholic teaching on the conditions for a just war. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, for a response to an act of aggression to be legitimate, “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” (No. 2309).
In other words, the response must be proportionate. Responding disproportionately may appeal to our sense of righteousness and our desire to bring a conflict to an end quickly and decisively, but as Gaudium et Spes (the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world) notes, “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties” (No. 79).
The most basic principle of Christian morality, as the Catechism notes, is that no one may do evil that good may come of it. The Catholic understanding of when war is just and when it is not flows from that principle. When teachable moments arise to remind us of this central truth, our shepherds should take advantage of them. The truths of the Catholic faith are more important than politics.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.