Even though we were completely wrong, we were right. Besides, since you were not obliged to listen in the first place, it doesn’t matter that we were wrong. Even though we were right. Moreover, since circumstances change, which means that we must be careful not to rely on an analysis of circumstances that may no longer exist. In other words, we are not obliged to learn from our mistakes, even though we wrong. But since we were wrong then, we must be right now.
Confused? Me too. But this is about as much logic as I could find in Fr. Richard McBrien’s latest defense of dinosaurdom. Fr. McBrien is out to show that 25 years after the U.S. Catholic bishops, under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, issued the pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” which attempted to apply universal moral principles to the issues of the day(arms control, unilateral nuclear disarmament, etc) even though their conclusions were all wrong, they were really right.
McBrien starts by making sure that the we understand pastoral letter was not a binding anyway, except for its moral principles which should be differentiated from the recommended prudential application of those principles, which turned out to be mostly wrong. In other words, Fr. McBrien is insisting that they had the formula right, they just did the math incorrectly.
I insisted at the time that, long after there were changes in the geo-political and military situations, the pastoral letter’s methodological points would still be valid.
Those situations have changed. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The United States and its allies are now concerned about the possession and development of nuclear weapons by other unfriendly nations, or about the securing of nuclear warheads by terrorist groups.
But the letter’s basic methodological principles, contained for the most part, although not exclusively, in articles 9, 10, 16 and 17, retain their validity and relevance.
I’m sorry, they only people get to be consistently wrong but yet still can claim prognosticatory authority are weathermen.
Amazingly, while McBrien still thinks that he and his discredited friends are still right on the fundamentals, the real takeway from this debacle is that this proves that we don’t have to listen to the Bishops today when they make prudential jusdgments about morality. Yes, the fact McBrien and his cadre of episcopal comrades blew it 25 years ago, means we don’t have to listen to the Bishops today on moral matters. Of course, says McBrien, we should give the Bishops moral recommendations should be given “serious attention”, whether we listen is up to us.
In other words, although Catholics are not obliged to accept without question or criticism every teaching of the hierarchy on faith and morals, they are required to give those teachings “serious attention and consideration.” Thus, while it is wrong for some Catholics on the right to oppose all expressions of dissent by more liberal Catholics, it is also wrong for Catholics in the latter group to adopt an uncritically dismissive approach to official teachings.
Here is the kicker, while we should have listened to the liberal Bishops 25 years ago because “they said so”, we are now way to grown up for that argument to cut the mustard.
While arguments from the Bible or from papal teaching, for example, may still be probative for many Catholics, the wider civil community must be persuaded by arguments based on evidence. Appeals to authority alone are inadequate. In fact, they are also inadequate for today’s well-educated Catholics.
In other words, since a generation ago the progressives misused their authority, they proved that authority is no longer of any value. Since the progressives are now losing their iron grip on the their once dominant authority, authority is useless.
One final query, anyone willing to take bets on how long until we find Fr. McBrien mindlessly wandering around the dog track talking to himself with his name and return address pinned to his sweater? Seeing all his progressive dreams slipping away, one by one, is driving the ol’ boy mad. Mad, I tell you.
June 19, 2008 at 3:49 am
Someone ought to give Nurse Ratchett a call – she’s missing a patient.
June 19, 2008 at 1:34 pm
Please explain how the bishops got it wrong in “The Challenge of Peace.” You don’t speak to that in this post, you simply say that they got it wrong. How? Some clarification would be helpful in understanding your point and your criticism of Fr. McBrien.
June 19, 2008 at 2:40 pm
This is an excellent example of how intellectual cultural Catholics of today are convincing only themselves that it is ok to vote for Obama.
Thanks for the post, I needed a good laugh.
June 19, 2008 at 4:41 pm
I didn’t get into it so much since McBrien essentially admits that on a number of points, the documents policy recommendations might not look to prescient through the lens of history.
But, to answer your question. The document criticizes certain foreign policies at the time that in retrospect seems to have worked. While there are definitely other factors, a case can be made that mutually assured destruction (MAD) as a deterrent worked for the limited purposes of restraining both the Soviets and the US from initiating a nuclear first strike. There are certainly other factors, but obviously we are still here. As a deterrent in this particular case. It worked.
Additionally, the document broadly criticizes the “arms race” that was under way at the time in 1983. This “arms race” was the Reagan military build up. In retrospect, I think many would agree that the build-up played no small role in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
To be certain, deterrent policy and militarization are moral issues to which the Bishops can try to apply fundamental principles. With that said, I don’t think that history supports that these particular policies at that particular time in those particular circumstances were immoral or ineffective.
Certainly in other circumstances, the Bishops may be 100% correct, but I don’t think that many would argue now that the USCCB was right then.
June 20, 2008 at 3:26 pm
I don’t think McBrien is conceding that the policy was wrong then. He is simply saying the specifics no longer make sense because the world has changed. I don’t think he really addresses whether opposing the Reagan arms build up was wrong. I suspect he hasn’t changed his mind on that but does not want the point of the article to get sidetracked.
It is interesting that he has to go back 25 years to find a document from a Cardinal that pushes a political agenda he agrees with. There have been documents on abortion and homosexuality that he does not cite because they are not liberal. There really isn’t one out there on today’s issues.
Pope Benedict is working on something but it won’t be from an American persepctive and he is not likely to get nearly as specific on policy.
June 22, 2008 at 1:19 pm
Thanks for your clarification above. I apologize for being so long in responding, but I work the weekends, and I needed a little time to review “The Challenge of Peace,” since it’s been a couple of decades since I’ve read it. I only had time, however, to review those parts of the pastoral letter that seemed most pertinent to what I understand to be the points of your post.
I do think your post largely misses the boat on “The Challenge of Peace.” Your points seem to be based on two erroneous claims:
1. that the bishops attach an authority to “The Challenge of Peace” that makes it binding on Catholics to accept their policy recommendations, and
2. that the bishops condemn the policy of deterrence (Mutually Assured Destruction) as immoral and ineffective.
First, the bishops are very clear on the matter of the authority the pastoral letter holds. It may be that Fr. McBrien wishes to exploit the bishops’ nuances in his effort to turn every matter of moral teaching into one of prudential judgment (hence, your concern that, since the bishops got it wrong, this justifies Catholics ignoring their teaching authority.) The bishops, however, make it clear that there are universal moral principles and Catholic teachings that bind the conscience. They also make it clear that their judgments regarding U. S. policy found in “The Challenge of Peace” are not in that category. If some Catholics and media pundits don’t want to be bothered with, or aren’t sophisticated enough to grasp, such distinctions, the bishops can hardly be faulted.
Second, the bishops certainly do not condemn deterrence as immoral and ineffective. Rather, taking the lead from Pope John Paul the Great, they actually say that deterrence “may still be judged morally acceptable,” though not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of arms control and nuclear disarmament. It strikes me that this seems not far from the position of Ronald Reagan. In his excellent book, “Presidential Courage,” Michael Beschloss writes that, while most of his aides thought that a continued arms race and policy of MAD with the Soviet Union were inevitable, Reagan believed the nuclear arsenal was immoral and that the U. S. could be successful in winning the Cold War and moving beyond a reliance on deterrence. It seems to me that this is what the U. S. essentially did. If anything, history seems to vindicate the bishops’ position on deterrence, though no one pretends that there’s still a good way to go to eliminate entirely the threat of nuclear war.
Finally, the “broad” condemnation of the arms race of the bishops is really nothing more than a reiteration of the condemnation of the arms race given by the Holy See, at least since the time of Pope John XXIII. You fail to mention this, giving the impression that such a condemnation of the arms race was the brainchild of the U. S. bishops. I suppose it could be argued, and will be for decades, what impact Reagan’s military build-up had on the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, in light of the other factors contributing to the demise of the U. S. S. R., it’s a legitimate question to ask if the resources expended that the risks engaged in the arms build-up were morally justified. Would the Soviet empire have collapsed anyway? I don’t think there’s a clear cut answer, but neither do I think it gives credit where credit is due to simply dismiss the bishops as patsies of the liberals.
In any case, it’s an interesting discussion. I hope I’m not too late to contribute to it.
The relevant articles from “The Challenge of Peace” include the Introduction and articles 9, 10, 189, 190, 191.
June 22, 2008 at 4:45 pm
Glad to continue the discussion.
You observe that I miss the boat by basing my claims on these two points:
“1. that the bishops attach an authority to “The Challenge of Peace” that makes it binding on Catholics to accept their policy recommendations, and
2. that the bishops condemn the policy of deterrence (Mutually Assured Destruction) as immoral and ineffective.”
I submit to you that I did no such this. As for point #1, I made no such claim nor do I hold this view. The document is clear on this point as was McBrien. I even wrote “McBrien starts by making sure that the we understand pastoral letter was not a binding anyway” Clearly I did not mis-understand the document to be binding.
The point I was trying to make, if inarticulately, is that McBrien points to the non-binding nature of this document to purposely blur the lines of what is binding teaching vs. non-binding. Between fundamental principles and the application thereof. Later on in his article, I believe that McBrien is trying to make the case that all such “teaching” are non-binding recommendations. Whether you agree or not, that is what I surmised was McBrien’s point.
As for #2. First, I did not claim that the Bishops condemned deterrence. I said that they criticized then current foreign policy. This, I still contend, is correct. While the Bishops did quote JPII citing the possibilty that it may be judged morally acceptable. However they go on to “recommend”
“immediate, bilateral verifiable agreements to halt the testing, production and deployment of new
nuclear weapons systems. This recommendation is not to be identified with any specific political initiative.
2. We support efforts to achieve deep cuts in the arsenals of both superpowers; efforts should concentrate first
on systems which threaten the retaliatory forces of either major power.”…
“The arms race is one of the greatest curses on the human race; it is to be condemned as a danger, an act of aggression against the poor, and a folly which does not provide the security it promises. (Cf: Pastoral Constitution, #81; Statement of the Holy See to the United Nations, 1976).
2. Negotiations must be pursued in every reasonable form possible; they should be governed by the “demand that the arms race should cease; that the stockpiles which exist in various countries should be reduced equally and simultaneously by the parties concerned; that nuclear weapons should be banned; and that a general agreement should eventually be reached about progressive disarmament and an effective method of control.””
One must look at the context in which these recommendations were suggested in order to properly understand them as a “criticism” of the foreign policy at the time.
The policy at the time called for a dramatic build up of our strategic forces and nuclear arsenals (arms race). This was designed to force the Soviet Union to keep up. This was something that their economy could not do. Further, this was compounded by the threat of SDI (Star Wars). The Soviets were deathly afraid of this initiative succeeding as the only way to overcome it would have been by sheer volume, costing even more money. Reagan knew this, that is why the policy was “arms race” and “build up”. He knew we could win the race. That is why he walked away at Reykjavík.
Immediate disarmament and avoidance of advantage would have allowed the “evil empire” to continue unfettered.
Understanding the context supports the idea that this document criticized then current foreign policy. I think it also supports my claim that the recommendations of the Bishops were not prudent.
Again, I re-emphasize my point that my piece was not intended as a detailed critique of this document, but of Fr. McBrien’s approach to disingenuous dissent. However, I think my brief claims about the value and prescience of the document hold up.
June 23, 2008 at 8:18 pm
I appreciate your response.
Regarding my first point: in re-reading your original post and your response, I concede that I misunderstood your point. It is much more clear now. It still isn’t clear to me, though, who “the progressives” are and how they misused their authority. Are the progressives the bishops? If so, how did they misuse their authority if the prudential judgments related in “The Challenge of Peace” were not binding? If the progressives are the liberal Catholics of the day, exactly what authority did they have to abuse?
We’re in agreement on the point that Fr. McBrien seeks to exploit the confusion many Catholics have over exactly what level of authority various teaching documents possess, hoping to convince Catholics that all Church teaching is at the level of prudential judgment and not requiring of Catholics assent deeper than “serious attention and consideration.” I’ve not read much of Fr. McBrien’s work, but what I’ve read of his, and of those who criticize his work (including the bishops), suggests that his most consistent error is that he blurs the line between official teaching and theological speculation, maximizing the authority of theologians and minimizing the authority of official Church teaching.
I’m not so ready to concede my second point. While you do use the word “criticize” and not “condemn,” in referring to the bishops’ position on the policy of deterrence, it seems to me that when you claim that the bishops criticize a policy as immoral and ineffective (your words), that’s pert near a condemnation. So much so, in fact, that the distinction seems meaningless. You’re not talking about one politician criticizing another politician’s policy, after all, or one political party criticizing another party’s policy. You’re talking about Catholic bishops judging a policy as immoral. I understand immoral to mean objectively wrong. Perhaps you can explain to me how that’s not a condemnation.
In any case, the bishops don’t even criticize the policy of deterrence as immoral or ineffective. Rather, they judge it as a policy that is conditionally morally acceptable: conditional on the understanding that it’s not intended as a permanent end, but a means to the ends of arms control and disarmament.
Given that, I think your response fails to make the necessary distinction between the policy of deterrence and the policy of nuclear arms build-up. Deterrence is not the same as the nuclear arms build-up, and the policy recommendations you quote are specifically related to the arms build-up. They are, nevertheless, consistent with the position of the bishops (and, I might add, the Holy See) regarding deterrence: again, that deterrence is not adopted as a permanent solution, but as a means toward the ends of arms control and disarmament.
The bishops certainly do criticize the policy of a nuclear arms build-up, quoting the Holy See in the effort. Certainly they felt that an effective policy of deterrence was not contingent on a build-up of new nuclear arms, but on just the opposite: constructive negotiations to reduce nuclear weapons. Certainly they judged that a ramped up arms race was not justified for many reasons. Whether or not their judgment was right or wrong, I think, isn’t as clear to many as it obviously is to you. The matter, as I pointed out, will no doubt be debated for decades to come. Some will claim Reagan’s policy of nuclear build-up was the central straw that broke the Soviet camel’s back. Others will argue that the build-up was excessive and unnecessary, it being too expensive, too risky, and there being so many other factors that rendered the demise of the Soviet Union inevitable.
In any case, whatever criticism you have of the U. S. bishops regarding their policy recommendations needs also, to be fair and complete, laid at the door of the Holy See, since the U. S. bishops took their lead from the Holy See. At least, I don’t see where they quoted much of Fr. McBrien in the pastoral.
Finally, I think it’s a good question to ask: now that the arms race is over, on what is the U. S. expending the resources we were spending on the arms race, this “act of aggression against the poor”? One trillion dollars over five years (if I remember the headlines correctly) is a lot of dough. Where’s all that money going now, I wonder?