George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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A Cautionary Tale

I too have been amazed at the astonishing pace of historical change over the past decade; and I agree that this change requires us to undertake a careful moral reflection on the new world situation and on the responsibilities of the United States in the post-Cold War world. But I do not agree that TCOP now seems “dated” simply because of the drama of recent history: the problem is, and was, more serious and more fundamental than that. TCOP seems “dated” because it was, in certain crucial respects, a flawed document at the level of moral analysis.

By holding its focus so intently on the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, and by paying insufficient attention to the ideological (and, indeed, moral) dimension of the Cold War, TCOP failed to grasp what events have now made abundantly clear: that the central threat in the nuclear age was not the brute fact of nuclear weapons themselves, but the nature of the regime(s) that possessed them; and that the key to “reducing the threat of nuclear war” lay in changing the nature of those regimes through a process of pluralization and, ultimately, democratization. The point, of course, is not that the bishops’ drafting committee in 1983 should have intuited the details of the changes that have restructured the world political scene over the past decade. The point is that TCOP did not articulate a moral understanding of the dynamics of world politics in which such changes could be understood as the key to the “challenge of peace” in the 1980s.

Why did this happen? The historical, strategic, and political analysis of the document was one problem, dependent as it was on the orthodoxies then prevalent in the arms control community.2 But TCOP was hardly alone in misreading the signs of the times through those particular lenses. No, the explanation for TCOP’s vulnerability to premature “datedness” lies, not so much in politics or strategy, but in the pastoral letter’s reading (some would say, misreading) of the classic Catholic tradition of peace.


The Politics of Peace


That tradition, from Augustine through the great scholastic commentators and on to the Second Vatican Council, taught that the peace to be sought among nations and states was political in character. It was a matter of rightly ordered political communities, in a rightly ordered relationship with one another. It was not Shalom, the eschatological peace of the Kingdom to come at a time of God’s choosing and through God’s action (a “peace” that we experience, eucharistically and proleptically, in the Church). It was not the interior peace of spiritual harmony between creature and Creator. It was, as St. Augustine put it, the peace of tranquillitas ordinis, the “tranquillity of order.”

TCOP’s relative neglect of this distinctive and classic Catholic understanding of “peace” was, I believe, the chief flaw that led to other problems in the document, including what was taken to be its tacit endorsement of certain forms of evangelical pacifism whose more traditional locus had been the ecclesial communities of the radical Reformation. Most importantly, it led to a failure to articulate the crucial relationship between the public architecture of freedom—including the defense of religious freedom and other basic human rights— and the pursuit of peace. And this, in turn, led to the unhappy fact that TCOP (like many other official documents of the time from other ecclesial communities) failed to take sufficient account of the main point urged by the brave dissidents and human rights activists of central and eastern Europe: namely, that the cause of freedom within their societies was the key to the pursuit of peace between “East” and “West,” given the ideological/moral core of the Cold War and the perverse nature of the Yalta imperial system.

This failure was also shaped in part by TCOP’s vulnerability, not to soft forms of Marxism (as the letter’s fringe critics charged), but to the anti-anticommunism prevalent in prominent American political circles in the post-Vietnam period. But Catholic anti-anticommunism (which was widespread in the American Church’s opinion elite in the early 1980s) itself bespoke the lack of a firm hold on the Catholic concept of “peace” as the tranquility of order, a dynamic tranquility to be achieved through the right-ordering of legal and political relations within and among nations and peoples. Tranquillitas ordinis and “democratic centralism” of the Marxist-Leninist sort are (and were) antinomies. A failure to grasp the full import of the former led to a lack of sufficient attention to the moral and political character of the problem posed by the latter. And thus TCOP misapprehended—perhaps better, TCOP failed to prepare much of the Church to grasp—the key to the latter’s demise.

Thanks be to God, the “threat of nuclear war” has been dramatically diminished over the past decade. But that has happened, not because of the kinds of “arms control” that TCOP seemed to favor, but because the Revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe and the New Russian Revolution of 1991 made real arms reduction possible: because the Revolution of 1989 and the New Russian Revolution put into place regimes with which serious peacemaking could be done. Conversely, and reinforcing the same point along the via negativa, where the threat of nuclear war exists today it does so because of the nature of the regimes that possess nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. No Frenchman loses sleep because of the British nuclear force; but many people in Seoul, Tokyo, and Tel Aviv are justifiably concerned about a nuclear-armed Kim Il-Sung or Saddam Hussein.

The classic Catholic concept of peace, with its emphasis on politics and law as the worldly alternatives to mass violence or its threat in the adjudication of international conflict, should have predisposed the bishops’ conference to grasp this central “regime” factor in Cold War-era peacemaking, and should have provided a prophylactic against the temptation to regard nuclear weapons as a kind of independent variable in world affairs. That TCOP did not make that factor clear should serve as a cautionary tale about this committee’s work.

Let me emphasize that I begin my testimony with this retrospective critique, not to score debating points or to say “I told you so,” but to underline my abiding conviction that the Church best speaks to the world of public affairs when it speaks as Church, out of the font of classic wisdom of which it is the unique bearer. To speak as Church does not mean that we ignore or meanly deprecate the worlds of strategic and political analysis. It means that we read, ponder, and adopt or reject that worldly wisdom through a very distinctive analytic lens.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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