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Seattle Catholic is not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Seattle
Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
12 Apr 2003
Dissenting from the Dissent
 How Far Should "Anti-War" Commentary Go?

   by Matthew M. Anger


Dr. Rao is an author who is deservedly admired for his work on Americanism, but his most recent essay, "The 'War of Liberation': An Unmitigated Catholic Defeat," presents some problems. In particular, when speaking of U.S. foreign policy, he laments its "program for 'making the world safe for Americans,'" and "more openly promoting, defending, and disdainfully laughing away criticisms of this violently anti-Catholic principle than any other force since 1945." Even worse than Communism or the resurgent Islam of the East?

Put simply, the author is trying too hard to have his "pluralism-as-religion" paradigm fit all contingencies of American life. Frankly, he misses the target in quite a few places. The thesis of that paradigm is indeed correct. We can agree that American Catholicism has surrendered far too much to secular culture, but this alone does not explain Catholics' support of this war, Dr. Rao's assertions to the contrary. There is, after all, a point at which warranted censure can cross over into an unrealistic negativity.

The American system is described as advancing the tyranny of one's own unbridled passions. That tyranny, by the way, would have been just as familiar to St. Paul in pagan Rome. Still, when it comes to overthrowing tyrants, it is more within the realms of possibility (even if not easy) for a person to overcome that type of despotism than one imposed by a totalitarian dictatorship. In the latter case, it's out of the individual's hands. That is because such a regime is what St. Thomas Aquinas calls "the worst form of government"—even worse than a defective democracy.

In addition, Dr. Rao's depiction of American polity also presents something of a moving target since he confuses the old notions of government with the new, the conservative elements with the liberal, and so forth. It is a shotgun approach to social criticism that inflicts a great deal of "collateral damage" of its own. Our own position as traditional Catholics in America is not one of unmitigated disaster (or unalloyed pessimism), and it seems slightly ungrateful to deny that God has given us any advantages by living in this country.

"Pro-Saddam" or "Pro-Bush"?

Amidst all the wartime rhetoric, the most obvious anomaly is how Saddam's regime has been held to a far less rigorous standard than that of George W. Bush. People fear that state police terror will arise from the Patriot Act—a threat that may exist but has not been realized. So they speak as if U.S. officials were already driving around in uniformed squads, rounding up anyone who might be perusing Lew Rockwell or Antiwar.com. Meanwhile, very little was said of the Saddam loyalists who were arresting scores of ordinary Iraqi for doing even less than that, including at least 150 children who have just been released as political prisoners. At any rate, I trust that no one will regret the collapse of Hussein's regime.

But setting the terms of debate as "pro-Saddam" or "pro-Bush" does not help. Neither side should engage in such labeling, though one cannot help notice how the anti-war estimation of Saddam's government was far too sanguine. The recent commentary by Assyrian Christian and ex-human shield, Ken Joseph ("I Was Wrong!") shows the "pro-Iraq" view in a less flattering light. Mr. Joseph's assessment is a sober one:

But what of [the Iraqi] feelings towards the United States and Britain? Those feelings are clearly mixed. They have no love for the British or the Americans but they trust them.

'We are not afraid of the American bombing. They will bomb carefully and not purposely target the people. What we are afraid of is Saddam Hussein and what he and the Baath Party will do when the war begins. But even then we want the war. It is the only way to escape our hell. Please tell them to hurry. We have been through war so many times, but this time it will give us hope' (http://assyrianchristians.com/i_was_wrong_mar_26_03.htm).

Unfortunately, this is just the sort of understanding that seems to be lacking in more passionate wartime assessments.

Our Nation in Context

To make the "best" the enemy of the "good" is a dangerous temptation. St. Augustine, by contrast, urged us not to extinguish the smoldering flame. The glimmer of goodness and justice in our society gives hope for the conversion of this land; weak virtues should not be criticized into oblivion, but made even stronger by encouragement and good example.

Along those lines, the impression one has of pro-war Americans as decent people with a semblance of natural virtue, and the mass of anti-war protestors as spoiled radicals and perverts, however simplistic, is not without some deeper justification. Rather than constantly side with the campus radicals, simply because they are "against" something we have criticized (according to entirely different criteria), we can work from a position of strength. We can support the aspects of U.S. policy for the right reasons, while condemning things that citizens of good-will can relate to, like the use of women in combat or the reckless policy aims of liberal officials.

Pax Americana

The legitimate concerns that Pat Buchanan has for foreign policy developments may caution us against undue optimism. Problems may yet loom round the corner. But America's situation should be evaluated by criteria that are realistic rather than nostalgic, objective and not merely hypothetical. America is a superpower and will probably remain so for some time. Many years ago the Russian anti-Communist novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminded us of our special status and the fact that we should neither abuse nor abdicate that responsibility. Like empires of the past, the U.S. can use this power for good or ill.

The history of previous global powers, including the European colonial efforts, will put our own quandaries, as well as the quaint denunciations of "imperialism," in perspective. Our country was not the first to embrace a good bit of greed and materialism. Yet even the European empires helped quell the savagery of non-Western nations and acted as an umbrella under which Catholic missionaries safely brought the faith to vast numbers of people who otherwise would have remained cloaked in heathen darkness.

Putting aside those unrealistic war commentaries which betray liberal sensitivities throughout, the conduct of the U.S. troops in Iraq is superior to that of many other nations. It is certainly no worse than that of the Crusaders or Conquistadors (according to any objective estimation). That does not, of course, sidestep the even more crucial question about the policy of the victors. In the old days, with the Church on the scene (as in Mexico) we knew that the best could be made of a sometimes bad situation. Even in the later colonies of England or France, the potential for evangelization was greater than previously. Civil war and man-made famines also did not exist on the scale of post-liberation regimes, which goes to show that even if temporal charity is inferior to spiritual, it is never to be despised.

As for the U.S. presence in Iraq, the weakest link in the chain is not the Bush administration, nor even the Americanist strategy, but the almost complete absence of the Catholic Church as a meaningful force. Which reminds us of what great thinkers, including Dr. Rao, have been saying all along. The faith—and its relative strength or weakness—is the key to history, not the continual political fluctuations of empire, feudalism and nation state.

Bush's Accountability

Concerning the Catholic relationship with this president, we need to first dispense with the straw men. Few are so na´ve as to believe that George Bush is another Medieval Pope leading the soldiers of the Cross against the Infidel. But a check on Islamicist ambitions, however limited, should not be blithely discounted. As far as the "big picture" goes, U.S. policy in the Middle East may not be what the Christians of the 11th century intended, though it is wrong to depict their efforts as purely "spiritual" or "defensive" in the narrow sense. There was a good deal of political and military pragmatism at work. But even without the lofty religious aims of the Middle Ages, American involvement in Vietnam, for example, was better than nothing, and an opportunity for something more. That the war effort against Communism eventually crumbled along with America's domestic culture lies in something beyond national politics, as alluded to above. The fact, however, that our country has to some degree rejected the ethos of the Vietnam era is not to be despised.

Related to this is the incessant "Bush bashing." This began well before the war and was in evidence in the debate over stem cell research. An interesting point made by a writer for the Wall Street Journal at the time was that while we must deplore Bush's final decision on the issue (a typical Republican compromise), our contemporary government lacks the moral corrective that earlier politicians once had. For decades, many priests and bishops have utterly neglected to discuss abortion-related issues, when they did not actually endorse anti-life positions. Can we hold Bush to a standard that the modern Church seems unwilling to impose on itself? And if Bush ignores the Pope's opposition to the war, is the virtual abdication of ecclesiastic authority amidst grave scandal not something of a mitigating factor? St. Thomas Aquinas tells us we have the leaders we deserve. On this point, Remnant editor Michael Matt is fair-minded and realistic when he fears that foreign policy blunders abroad might compromise the comparatively strong moral position this president holds in post-Clinton America. But other commentators will not give Mr. Bush even that much credit.

Meanwhile, if Bush errs it is presumably more in ignorance than sheer malice. This situation, of course, demonstrates the real challenge of the heresy of Americanism: that unlike the satanic brutality of Communism, its roots and traditions are a mixed legacy. Its situation is more subtle, and therefore requires a response that is equally nuanced. Otherwise, we see well-meaning writers treating the U.S. government in the same outraged manner as hippie radicals of thirty years ago. This leads one to ask if the adoption of the rhetoric of the left is not an even greater victory for the forces of subversion than anyone could have imagined? Certainly, we should be "wise as serpents." But people tend to forget the part about being as "harmless as doves." Valid social thought tells us that strident anti-government invective is not the tried and true path of Christianity, if only because it can be so easily misunderstood. Let us convert people religiously and then philosophically and then politically, and not the reverse.

The Terms of Debate

Any tendency towards "guilt by association" is lamentable. Nor does it really matter who started it. Opponents to Bush's policies do as much an injustice as supporters when they imply, if not state outright, that such a stance compromises them with the forces of secular degeneracy. The fact is, we cannot hope for political exactitude in an epoch where religious confusion reigns. For this very reason, of course, one refrains from indiscriminately lumping together individuals on the anti-war side. Some of the criticisms are more reasonable than others. Pat Buchanan is not to be confounded with the Marxism of Noam Chomsky, nor Michael Matt with the Anarcho-libertarianism of Joseph Sobran.

In this respect, the intentions of participants must be separated from their deductions. Remember that both the pro-war and anti-war Catholic, loyal to the Magisterium, are working from the same core beliefs, whereas a liberal who opposes the war may be doing so for entirely bad reasons. Let us make sure that whatever side of the fence we stand on, we don't end up despising loyal Catholics more than temporary secular allies!

The war debate should certainly not be stifled. But if it is smothered to death by invective and polemics, it won't really matter what anyone thinks. If the aim is to convince, let us put aside adversarial commentary and note that healthy disagreement in areas that are not de fide is possible, but only if we avoid treating personal decisions on the war as matters of unconditional moral probity—e.g., the much-quoted statement by Bp. Botean that support of the war is on par with abortion.

As it is, when writers impugn fellow traditionalists as perfidious "neo-conservatives," they are not voicing intellectual dissent. They are voicing a party line. And the danger of adopting a party line is that even when facts (as for example the truth about the Saddam regime) come to light, an over-zealous partisan will ignore empirical data for the sake of propping up a short-term agenda.

Closing the Gap

In conclusion, we need to close the gap between the two sides of this discussion before things deteriorate even further. On the one hand, few traditionalist supporters of the war really want our views to be dominated by the vapid agenda of David Frum of National Review or the pseudo-conservative globalism of Colin Powell. On the other hand, the rank-and-file of orthodox Catholics are not going to identify with the more outrageous commentaries being circulated (and it's simply unfair to dismiss this prudent concern out of impatience). If such commentaries continue, and if discernment is lacking on the part of wartime critics, the faithful may be unnecessarily alienated by the very authors who have so ably defended truth on key issues in the past. In fact, it is already happening.

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