Saturday, November 26, 2005

George Weigel's Tranquillitas Ordinis

When I was first exploring the topic of the Catholic Church's just war tradition, I asked my father -- bright college-educated Catholic doctor of philosophy that he is -- if he had anything to recommend, especially as he had recently delivered an address on the subject War and the Eclipse of Moral Reasoning Tenth Annual Aquinas/Luther Conference. Lenoir-Rhyne College. October 24-26, 2002).

His response to me was Weigel's Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (Oxford University Press, 1987).

Following is a review that I stumbled across today in the process of research on the web. It should give readers some sense as to what the book is about and Weigel's thesis:

This is a remarkable book not only for the breadth of its coverage on a complicated politico-moral question, but because it is literary. George Weigel not only knows what his subject matter is, but he writes in declarative sentences which are readily understood. He also eschews the nuances used by many modern scholars to insinuate points of view without arguing them openly. Although pundits will do their best to label this book to prejudice potential readers from following it with an open mind, it is too packed with facts and principles to be categorized easily. Although more empirical, Tranquillitas Ordinis deserves to be on the same shelf as John Courtney Murray's We Hold These Truths.

We tend to forget in this age of slogans and shibboleths that the Catholic Church has had long and continuous experience with questions of war and peace and with a variety of political environments. Force, aggression, deterrence, hostages, burnt-out cities are old stuff to Catholic divines. Who better than St. Augustine knew the capacity of ancient armies to bury so great a city as Carthage and its 300,000 inhabitants. St. Ambrose, the optimist of his day, was confident that Roman Emperors with their new Christian piety could guarantee world peace. Then came the sack of Italy by Alaric the Hun and Ambrose's optimism faded. It was his convert Augustine who faced up to the reality of world politics, comprised of kingdoms organized to pursue their own selfish ends. There can never be a perfect Christian state, Augustine argued, so he advised against moralizing simplistically about the use of force on earth, only about its unreasonable and excessive use. Thus, the "just war theory" came into existence; defining the limits of justifiable defense. The Founding Father of the United States set similar limits in the preamble of our Constitution.

In thirteen chapters George Weigel does more than trace Catholic thought from Augustine through Aquinas, John Courtney Murray, Vatican II and its aftermath. He digs deep into the practical implications of the principle that a rightly-ordered political community, using moderate force, is necessary to maintain Tranquillitas Ordinis. Father Murray is Weigel's hero for unfolding the Catholic principles which underlay "the American experiment"-"a nation under God," ruled by consent of the governed, who have rights antecedent to the state, who are expected to exercise those rights individually and collectively within a framework of civic virtue. In adjudicating issues of war and peace, Murray called for "discriminating moral judgment," not simple appeals to biblical texts. Because military decisions are a species of political decisions, the Jesuit ground-breaker called for political. choices to be made within a moral framework of one kind or another. Murray spent the last years of his life developing such a framework and the moral reasoning which underpinned it. Although he never came to grips with the significance of pacifism or the United Nations' potential, his legacy is clear enough.

The remaining chapters take up the abandonment of this Augustinian heritage by modern Catholic elites. As George Weigel sees it, "they have become softly neo-isolationist, anti-anti-communist, and highly skeptical of the moral worthiness of the American Experiment." They see conflict as primarily psychological, whose alleviation is to be found in understanding and better communication. If enough people have the right intentions and are willing to act on them peace can be achieved, the new Pelagians aver. Contrariwise, Weigel argues that conflicts between states are political in origin and must be dealt with through an orderly political process which accentuates reason, not by imperatives or wishful thinking. At present America is caught up in a dilemma: Do we preserve peace by limiting our concern for our own independence and the freedom of friends beyond our shores? Or do we defend freedom and human rights even at the price of armament races, even of war?

Tranquillitas Ordinis takes the reader through the U.S. bishops' effort to resolve the dilemma with their 1983 pastoral "The Challenge of Peace." He calls it a brave effort, although he faults the staff for its presumptive "nuclear pacifism," for its other idological assumptions, and for its control of the framework under which the bishops functioned. The last seventy pages are devoted to developing a proper response to the realities of international politics within the framework of the Catholic tradition. He places his confidence in politics and is quite good in answering his own questions about the use of force and the role of America.

-- Review by Charles J. Leonard. Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly Newsletter Vol. 10, No. 4. Sept. 1987.