Squandering moral capital

George Weigel

The morality of tyrannicide is not much discussed in today’s kinder, gentler Catholic Church. Yet that difficult subject once engaged some of Catholicism’s finest minds, including Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suárez, and it was passionately debated during the Second World War by German officers — many of them devout Christians — who were pondering the assassination of Adolf Hitler. (Their efforts were known and tacitly approved by Pius XII, but that’s another story.)

What about today? Were I back in the classroom, I’d ask my students to construct a morally defensible argument for killing a tyrant. If the student followed Aquinas’s reasoning, the case for tyrannicide would involve a leader who was doing grave evil, who could not be removed from power except by being killed, and whose assassination would not make matters worse. Were those conditions met, Aquinas argued in his Commentary on Peter Lombard, a citizen might even be “praised and rewarded” for being the “one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant.”

With the 30th anniversary of the Revolution of 1989 coming this fall, we’ll all be reminded that there are alternatives to killing tyrants or surrendering to evil: awakened consciences can discover nonviolent tools of resistance to tyranny, tools preferable to assassination. And consciences are awakened when men and women hear a summons to moral heroism — to living in the truth, which is the greatest of liberators. That is why the current stance of the Holy See toward Latin American tyrannies is so disconcerting. For rather than calling the people of hard-pressed countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to effective, nonviolent resistance against tyrants on the model of Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, the Vatican is constantly bleating about “dialogue” with murderous thugs who’ve demonstrated for decades that they’re only interested in maintaining their power, masking their gross personal ambition and greed with a fog cloud of gibberish about “the revolution.”

Now, however, 20 former Latin American heads of state and government have said, politely but firmly, that enough is enough. In a January 6 letter to their fellow-Latin American, Pope Francis, the signatories, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, acknowledged the “good faith” and “pastoral spirit” of Francis’s Christmas blessing Urbi et Orbi [to the city and the world]. But they also reminded the pope that Venezuelans “are victims of oppression by a militarized narco-dictatorship which has no qualms about systematically violating the rights to life, liberty, and personal integrity,” a corrupt regime that has also “subjected [Venezuelans] to widespread famine and lack of medicine.” As for Nicaragua, President Arias and his colleagues noted that the Ortega regime has recently killed 300 Nicaraguans and wounded 2,500 others in a “wave of repression” against nonviolent protesters.

In these contexts, the former leaders concluded, the papal “call for harmony….can be understood by the victimized nations [as an instruction] that they should come to agreement with their victimizers.” Which is why the majority in Nicaragua and Venezuela received the Pope’s Christmas message “in a very negative way.”

In 2013, the Church’s moral influence in world affairs was at its modern apogee. John Paul II was widely recognized as a pivotal figure in the nonviolent collapse of European communism and a significant player in the democratization of Latin America and East Asia. Drawing on John Paul’s social doctrine and his own penetrating insights into political modernity, Benedict XVI had made powerful statements about the moral foundations of the 21st-century free society in lectures at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, London’s Westminster Hall, and the Bundestag in Berlin.

What has the world seen since then?

It has seen a papal initiative in Syria that, however well-intended, provided cover for the Obama administration to back off its “red line” about Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. It has seen a Vatican that refuses to use the words “invasion,” “war,” and “occupation” to describe Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss in Crimea and his war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,000 and displaced more than a million Ukrainians, many of them Ukrainian Greek Catholics. It has seen a Vatican deal with China that is widely regarded as a kow-tow to ruthless, aggressive authoritarians.

Where is the moral challenge to tyranny? Where is the summons to heroic resistance? Great moral capital is being squandered, in a world that desperately needs a moral compass.

Photo by ŠJů via Creative Commons

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA