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Theological Notebook: Steinfels on Two Ethics Debates: Just War and Partial-Birth Abortion

Two more recent columns of interest from Peter Steinfels of The New York Times.

A Catholic Debate Mounts on the Meaning of ‘Just War’

Published: April 14, 2007

For over four years, George Weigel, staunch supporter of President Bush and biographer of Pope John Paul II, has never ceased to insist that the war in Iraq meets all the traditional moral criteria for a just war. And most leaders and thinkers among Mr. Weigel’s fellow Roman Catholics, along with many non-Catholic proponents of just-war thinking, have never ceased to disagree.

Now there is a fresh surge in this debate, with combat concentrated not only on how to apply these venerable moral principles to this particular war but also on how the principles should be understood in the first place.

Mr. Weigel delivers the latest rendition of his case in the April issue of First Things, an interreligious neoconservative monthly. At sharp odds is an editorial in the April 20 issue of the liberal Commonweal, edited by Catholic lay people (where this writer was an editor in the 1980s).

Still another view is offered by Msgr. Robert W. McElroy, a pastor in San Mateo, Calif., who is the author of “Morality and American Foreign Policy: The Role of Ethics in International Affairs,” published by Princeton University Press in 1992. His article is scheduled for publication in the April 30 issue of the Jesuit-edited weekly America.

(The Commonweal editorial and America article, both obtained in advance, will be posted on the magazines’ Web sites next Monday and Friday, respectively.)

Just-war theory considers a war morally justified only if it is fought for a just cause as a last resort by a legitimate authority acting with good intentions. The war must have a reasonable chance of success and of not doing more harm than good, and it should be conducted by moral means, avoiding, for example, deliberate attacks on civilians.

Mr. Weigel’s elucidation of this moral tradition has been notable for two emphases. For years, he has scolded the Catholic bishops and other just-war proponents for claiming that the teaching begins with “a presumption against war.” On the contrary, Mr. Weigel has argued, the “classic” doctrine treated war not as a moral anomaly that had to run a gantlet of moral tests before it could be justified but as “a moral category,” a neutral instrument of statecraft that could be used for good or ill. The tradition should never be removed from the obligation of nations (like the United States in Iraq) to assure security, justice and freedom.

Second, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Weigel insisted that religious leaders should exercise “political modesty” in the public debate, recognizing that government officials “are more fully informed about the relevant facts.” Employing the term “charism,” usually associated with saints who founded religious orders, he proposed that government officials enjoyed a “charism of political discernment” that was “not shared by bishops, stated clerks, rabbis, imams, or ecumenical and interreligious agencies.”

The thrust of these emphases was of course to undercut the moral objections of many religious leaders about the potential human and political costs of invading Iraq.

In his latest essay, Mr. Weigel grapples with the fact that those costs have become painfully evident, and the larger concerns of security, justice and freedom increasingly elusory. Now his case for war scarcely mentions the earlier suspicion of weapons of mass destruction but stresses a need to defeat jihadi terrorism and establish responsible government and peace throughout the Middle East.

He laments “mistakes made by analysts and U.S. policy makers,” who remain unidentified except for the “convenient scapegoat,” Donald H. Rumsfeld. Finally, he defends the administration’s latest strategy against an alternative that he defines simply as “we’re out.”

In all this, he merely alludes to his earlier critique of the “presumption against war” and makes no mention of the “charism of political discernment.” But his animus toward antiwar religious leaders is unabated.

Which is what struck the editors of Commonweal, who have consistently opposed the war. In contrast to the second thoughts of many liberals originally convinced of the Iraq war’s necessity, the editors note, “no such admissions of error, or even regret, have been issued by outspoken Catholic neoconservatives.” Does Mr. Weigel’s long list of American miscalculations, they wonder, “cast doubt on his claim” about the government’s “charism of political discernment”? Reviewing the prudential warnings and moral qualms issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “it is hard not to conclude,” the editors write, “that the bishops’ charism, rather than the president’s, has better served the nation.”

Both Commonweal and Monsignor McElroy, in America magazine, deny that given the potential destructiveness of modern warfare, just-war teaching has been deformed by making a “presumption against war” its starting point. To reject this development, Monsignor McElroy writes, reduces “a living, breathing moral tradition” to “a historical artifact.”

“One implication of this strong presumption against war,” Monsignor McElroy adds, is that “moral scrutiny of the decision to wage war should take place not merely at the beginning of a conflict, but at every stage of its duration.”

He examines, for instance, how the Iraq war’s stated cause has shifted from the imminent threat posed by an aggressive dictator’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction to “transformational democratization,” whether limited to Iraq or extended (as in Mr. Weigel’s vision) to the whole Middle East. “But transformational democratization falls outside the criteria of the just cause as it has been formulated in the modern age,” he writes.

Looking at the traditional criterion of proportionality, Monsignor McElroy notes that supporters of the invasion once emphasized how “the complexities of war and geopolitics” made it impossible to predict whether the evils unleashed by war would outweigh good. But now, he writes, “these same advocates” cast aside “this epistemic modesty” and insist with certainty “that American withdrawal would be a catastrophic blow to peace and just order in the world.”

For Commonweal, the record has thoroughly discredited Mr. Weigel’s version of just-war thinking. For Monsignor McElroy, “any effort to apply rigorous just-war thinking”— presumably not Mr. Weigel’s — dictates moving immediately “toward a measured and prudently crafted American military withdrawal.” For Mr. Weigel, such notions amount to an abandonment of “the mantle of moral seriousness.”

Moral Plots and Subplots in the Latest Ruling on Abortion

Published: April 28, 2007

Life today is lived on slippery slopes. Which ones seize our attention and crystallize our fears? What moral outrages or absurdities, lurking at the bottom, stir our energies? How steep is the incline? Where can we throw up a railing, dig a trench, clear a landing, keep our footing? Questions like these determine a great deal of public moral debate.

That fact was amply demonstrated by the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 and the reactions the ruling engendered. There was wide agreement that the ruling would directly affect few abortions but wide disagreement on what the ruling meant.

Constitutional experts naturally and properly subjected the court’s opinions to fine-grained analyses, revealing in the process how much abortion law has come to resemble the challenge of lacing a shoe with a shoelace already knotted in several places. But the general public mainly cast the decision in terms of two larger stories focusing on two different slippery slopes.

One story was summed up by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s phrase, in her dissenting opinion, that the decision threatened “to chip away” previous affirmations of abortion rights, standard safeguards for women’s health and even women’s newly won place as equal and morally autonomous actors in public life.

Justice Ginsburg was hardly alone in framing the matter this way. This was the story framing most news reports on the decision. It was the framework put forward by Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Federation and other groups active in defense of legal abortion. That the court was chipping away at abortion rights was also the view of some abortion opponents, although they welcomed that process as a slow ascent rather than decrying it as a slippery slope.

This was also the framework of much commentary, whether about the practical limits of the decision or whether Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in his majority opinion, patronized women with his reference to “the bond of love the mother has for her child” or the possibility that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.”

Public division and debate over the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and the court’s ruling on it cannot be understood, however, without recognizing another story, the drama of another slippery slope.

That story played a central role in the passage of the law — and in Justice Kennedy’s opinion defending it: “The act proscribes a method of abortion in which a fetus is killed just inches before completion of the birth process,” he wrote. Having found that this method had a “disturbing similarity to the killing of a newborn infant,” Congress was acting reasonably, Justice Kennedy concluded, in drawing “a bright line that clearly distinguishes abortion and infanticide.”

Not even the title of the disputed law can be understood apart from this fear by some that the nation might be slouching toward infanticide, the rejection of which has been one of those landmark developments in humankind’s moral progress.

The Associated Press report on the Supreme Court’s decision mentioned both the majority’s defense of “drawing a bright line between abortion and infanticide” and the dissenters’ image of chipping away at abortion rights. But a number of major papers ran reports of the decision, including versions of The A.P.’s dispatch, with no reference to infanticide. Some mentioned the word only in quotes from anti-abortion leaders. In this paper, the word appeared in a letter to the editor from an official of an Orthodox Jewish organization.

Justice Ginsburg recognized the importance of this issue and took it on directly. Noting that alternative methods of late-term abortion not banned by the law may involve tearing the fetus apart and ripping off its limbs, she quoted Justice John Paul Stevens’s opinion in a previous case that it was “simply irrational” to think that “either of these two equally gruesome procedures” was “more akin to infanticide than the other.”

Supporters of the law could agree, of course, that alternative abortion methods were similarly gruesome but still disagree that gruesomeness was the only relevant grounds for banning a particular procedure.

To be sure, many advocates of abortion rights dismiss this anxiety about sliding toward infanticide as a charade. After all, don’t anti-abortion forces consider all abortion to be infanticide or something morally equivalent to it, whether or not the procedure is gruesome or whether or not the fetus is just short of being born?

That is doubtlessly true of the organized anti-abortion movement and its legal and moral theorists. It is not true, however, of many among those rallying to outlaw this procedure because its “disturbing similarity to the killing of a newborn infant” seemed to blur the line between abortion and infanticide.

It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, after all, Senator Hillary Clinton’s predecessor and, like her, a supporter of abortion rights, who voted for an earlier version of the current law, calling the banned procedure “just too close to infanticide.”

Yet to be seen is whether the anti-abortion movement can convince Americans whose intuitions were like Mr. Moynihan’s that their negative judgment should, in fact, be extended to other categories of abortion, possibly, at the outside, to all of them. It is an incongruous side effect of the clashing Supreme Court opinions that abortion opponents can find more support in Justice Ginsburg’s opinion than in Justice Kennedy’s for the conviction that all abortions are essentially similar.

Meanwhile, anyone hoping to understand the moral and political passions surrounding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and the Supreme Court’s ruling on its constitutionality must realize that not just one but two stories, not just one but two ethical slippery slopes, are at work in the minds of Americans.
Tags: constitutional, cultural, ethical, political, theological notebook

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