Neuhaus Annoys Again
Oops, he did it again. Fresh from criticizing the US bishops for having the gall to respond to an initiative to discuss the Iraq war from a group of Democrats, the don of First Things restates his case after some criticism from Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Florida.
First things first. Before getting to the core of his argument, Neuhaus lets slip a few snide comments about the bishops. He sarcastically questions whether we should trust them in areas where they have little competence when they so completely botched up in the area where they are supposed to have some competence, namely the sex abuse scandal. Basically, Neuhaus is engaging in the kind of attacks most common on the left: why should should we trust the bishops on any topic (abortion, gay marriage etc.) when they are simply a bunch of pedophiles and pedophile enablers? Given his role as a priest, one expects better from Neuhaus. One at least expects him to understand the hierarachical nature of the Church founded by Christ, and the specific role of the bishops in their teaching capacity. But, no, Neahaus is trying to score a few points. An anti-clerical cleric. Somewhere, the postmodernists and deconstructionists are smiling.
Let me address the main point made by Neuhaus, which (despite his tone) is an important one. In his words:
“Faithful Catholics listen attentively when bishops speak on faith and morals. My original point about competence is that Bishop Wenski and his committee are overreaching. Episcopal competence is related to faith and morals, not to faith, morals, and public policy—except when, as, for example, in the instance of abortion, specific public policies are entailed in the solemn magisterial teaching of the Church on faith and morals. That is decidedly not the case in this instance.”
Neuhaus seems to be arguing that the Church should only speak out on matters of faith and morals in instances where the act is defined to be intrinsically evil, evil irrespective of cirumstance. He would no doubt argue that since war is not intrinsically evil, as its licitness depends on circumstances, then the bishops should respectfully stay quiet. Again, to Neuhaus:
“Differences over American policy in Iraq are in the realm of prudential judgment. There are indeed moral questions involved in any policy of consequence. But when the bishops speak of “the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Iraq” and declare that the answer is to “end U.S. military engagement in Iraq,” they are making prudential judgments about eminently debatable circumstances.”
He is now entering dangerous waters, and I wonder if he even recognizes the currents that threaten to sabotage his boat. If I understand him correctly, the Church should stay out of matters of prudential judgment, or matters pertaining to the application of Catholic teaching to specific facts and circumstances. I do not deny that characterizations like the need to end the Iraq war are prudential judgments. But to deny the legitimacy of Church intervention in these areas would be gravely wrong.
Let me explain why, and I will use the abortion example. The” solemn magisterial teaching of the Church on faith and morals” (to use Neuhaus’s term) in this area is that abortion is always and everywhere wrong, never a right, and never licit. Hence no Catholic can support it in the public sphere. But what happens when we want to go beyond that general and generic statement? Any discussion of how to address the issue of abortion today quickly descends to the domain of prudential judgment. Is the best strategy to elect presidents that will choose judges that will vote to overturn Roe? Quite possibly, but this train of thought is a probabilistic one, imbued with uncertainty. In other words, to use Neuhaus’s phrase again, it is a “prudential judgment about eminently debatable circumstances” (I do not wish to argue the merits of this argument in this current context, merely to recognize it for what it is).
Of course, when we think about it, the Church simply cannot ignore prudential judgments, as otherwise it would be reduced to muttering vague platitudes, and saying nothing about 95 percent of the key issues affecting the lives of the faithful. It would be toothless, but perhaps that is what some want.
And just because something is not intrinsically evil does not mean that it is not extrinsically evil, dependent on circumstances. Pretty much any war can be defended by appealing to the just war principles, if you stretch and twist them far enough. Is this always an out-of-bounds prudential judgment? Or should the Church not take a step back and guide the debate? In other words, it is gravely mistaken (as so many do) to use the term “prudential judgment” as a get-out-of-jail-free card, to avoid any moral reckoning whatsoever. I fear that many who make the “prudential judgment” do so not because of the particular facts and circumstances, but because they questioning the underlying principles governing circumstances themselves. For example, in the particular case in hand, many will argue that the nature of terrorism calls for a different approach to war. Even if they do not say so explcitly, this judgment features in their ultimate assessment of circumstances. It’s a fine line. But we need the role of the Church to guide us on specific circumstances. You may disagree, but you may not deny the teaching role of the Church in particular circumstances.
But this would all be ruled out by Neuhaus. The Church would not be able to distinguish among judgments based on reason and those not. He would not have Pope Benedict XV issue his peace note calling for an end to hostilities during the first world war, because, after all, there were “eminently debatable circumstances” surrounding this conflict. What after all, did a sheltered academic Italian churchman understand about foreign policy at the time? And what can Catholic bishops say with competency about Iraq today? The answer to that is: quite a lot. After all, the judgment of the Vatican has been far better in this area than those to whom George Weigel endowed with the “charism of political discernment”.