Iraq, Weigel and the Pope

Once the war in Iraq began, the most important thing anyone could do was pray harder — that the war would go quickly and with as little loss of life as possible and that the good results would outweigh the bad for Iraq, the United States and the rest of the world.

Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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That said, it is clear that issues raised in the debate leading up to the war remain unresolved. One of particular interest to Catholics is this: Is it fair to call my friends Michael Novak, George Weigel, Deal Hudson and others who supported the Bush administration “dissenters” because they differed on this matter with the pope?

Although I disagreed with them — indeed, perhaps because I disagreed — I feel obliged to say that dissenters they most emphatically are not.

Before explaining why, let me say for the record what my own position on the Iraq war was and is. It's reducible to three short statements.

First, U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq had been resumed and seemed to be getting some results; it was premature, to say the least, to cut that process short by going to war at this time.

Second, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, regime change is not an appropriate purpose of war.

Third, creating a democratic Iraq by force is a will-o'-the-wisp that the United States has no business pursuing.

But Novak, Weigel, Hudson and co. are, as Catholics, entitled to disagree on Iraq with me and, far more important, with Pope John Paul II. For those of us who line up on different sides of this issue — including, as far as I can see, the pope — are expressing prudential judgments rather than matters of moral principle and Catholic doctrine.

The notion of prudential judgment may need explaining. “Prudential” refers to prudence, and prudence these days has a bad name with people for whom it signifies lack of courage and failure of nerve. In the tradition, however, prudence is one of the cardinal virtues upon which other virtues depend. The function of prudence in this sense is to keep us in touch with morally relevant facts.

Given the limits of human knowledge, even prudential judgments by prudent people can be mistaken. In the present instance, the pope and Catholics who differed with him — conscientious and informed people like Novak, Weigel and Hudson — based their stands on an assessment of likely consequences of different courses of action. Since the assessments of what was more or less likely to happen in the future were different, so were the conclusions about what course of action to take.

To disagree with the pope in this manner is not dissent. It's not as if Pope John Paul II had taught a definitive moral principle (e.g., direct attacks on noncombatants are ruled out) which the disagreeing Catholics rejected. They agreed with the principle. They disagreed about something contingent and by no means certain: what the future outcome of complex, competing scenarios was likely to be.

The Washington Times, by the way, did no favor to Novak and Weigel or to itself by claiming editorially that they had a better grasp of just war doctrine as taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church than did the pope. The Times also is entitled to its position on the morality of this war, but it shouldn't talk nonsense to make its case.

In any event, although I thought and still think Novak, Weigel, Hudson and co. were wrong about Iraq, it misses the point to call them dissenters even though they disagreed with the pope.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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