For a while now and for various reasons, Mennonites have been learning not only to debate with but also within the just war theory. Their most preeminent theologian of the last 50 years, John H. Yoder, provided both a precedent and a basis when he mastered its reasoning, used it as a set of "middle axioms" and thus was able to call its practitioners to apply it more honestly and stringently without thereby making it his own ethic. Meanwhile, Mennonite peace activists in grassroots coalitions have recognized the just war theory working to move some non-pacifist Christians toward an increasingly critical view of modern warfare - or even a sweeping condemnation. Together, these first two factors have confirmed a third: For better or for worse, at least in Western societies, just war principles and criteria serve as a common language for scrutinizing the wisdom of particular wars; Mennonite pacifists have thus learned to use it as a kind of second language that is useful as they enter into public debate.

The American Catholic commentator George Weigel certainly has a voice in current public debate, one that cannot be ignored. On the strength of his semi-official biography of Pope John Paul II, his mastery of the Washington think-tank game, and the savvy marketing to which he passingly admits in his article, "Moral Clarity in a Time of War," Weigel has become prominent in current just war deliberation. Whether he is as representative of his Church as he is prominent in Washington is another matter.

For Mennonites to take Weigel as representative of Roman Catholic developments in just war thought would not only be a mistake, in fact, but would risk entanglement in an intramural fight. To be sure, there is a challenge embedded in Weigel's article that Mennonites should engage - and to this I will return. But Weigel's indiscriminate targeting of nameless "scholars, activists, and religious leaders" who apply the just war theory differently than he does would take in (or perhaps "take out") the very kinds of just war thinkers with whom Mennonites have most fruitfully engaged. And if Weigel's argument hints at a certain desperation, it is because they not he are probably winning.1

If Weigel were to name some of the Catholics he claims have been suffering from just war amnesia he would have to include John Ford, Bryan Hehir, John Langan, Drew Christiansen, U.S. bishops, and (most embarrassing) even his own hero John Paul II. Some of these were Yoder's long-term conversation partners; all of them have attempted to meet a core challenge akin to the one that Yoder so trenchantly articulated: For the just war theory to be a respectable tradition of moral deliberation it must have "teeth." That is, it must be rigorous enough to require policy-makers to renounce unjust wars and immoral tactics even when those wars or tactics would seem to serve their ends.2 Otherwise it devolves into an endless shell game of rationalizations and shifting standards that predictably "justify" what one has already decided "must be done" anyway.

The very effort to specify the theory's teeth, however, is what Weigel is objecting to when he claims that too many church leaders are imagining "that the role of moral reason is to set a series of hurdles (primarily having to do with in bello questions of proportionality and discrimination) that statesmen must overcome before the resort to armed force." This is what he is worried about when he claims that the theory itself is being "reduced to a series of means tests that begins with a 'presumption against violence.'" And although he wants to reverse the trend, in one way he is right. There has been a trend. In the face of modern warfare's increasing lethality, more and more just war thinkers have been applying its criteria not only vis-à-vis wars (ius ad bellum considerations about what justifies going to war) and not only to warfare (ius in bello considerations about the conduct of war) but increasingly to war itself (the very enterprise). And this, quite apart from pacifist interlocutors such as Yoder.

Weigel seems self-confident enough - so confident as to assert on his own authority (and against his bishops,3 despite defending the magisterium vigorously on other moral issues) that the just war theory does not in fact begin with a presumption against violence. Perhaps if Weigel had actually succeeded at cutting through the "fog of war" with needed "moral clarity," sheer coherence could have justified mere assertion. But consider Weigel's very definition of the just war position:

Thus the just war tradition is best understood as a sustained and disciplined intellectual attempt to relate the morally legitimate use of proportionate and discriminate military force to morally worthy political ends.

Later in the same paragraph Weigel again focuses on the purposes of statecraft that justify "proportionate and discriminate armed force." But both times (and throughout the entire article insofar as he discusses ius ad bellum considerations while neglecting ius in bello ones) Weigel simply begs the question.

For if, as Weigel says, the just war tradition of intellectual deliberation attempts "to relate the morally legitimate use of proportionate and discriminate military force to morally worthy political ends" one must know what constitutes proportionality and discriminate use of lethal force before beginning to apply such force. This means that ius in bello considerations can not wait until after ius ad bellum considerations have authorized a war. This means one must begin with a presumption against lethal force after all, or at least take it up far earlier in one's "sustained and disciplined intellectual" process of reasoning. Weigel has not provided "moral clarity" here - he has engaged in serious obfuscation.4

For all this, one of Weigel's underlying concerns would deserve Mennonite engagement if only he had argued it forthrightly. Whatever Weigel means by statecraft, and however worried readers should be that Weigel's arguments would write its practitioners a blank check, he does press a legitimate question: Must condemnation of wars, warfare or war imply a condemnation of government?

If that were more clearly the question, then Weigel would undoubtedly be representing the Catholic tradition. It is axiomatic not only for Weigel but for his unnamed Catholic intramural opponents, after all, that government is a good - a created good, and not simply a tragic necessity for punishing the sin of a fallen world. According to this view, government would in fact be necessary even in a prelapsarian world, for it is the craft of ordering our life together, which any community needs. (Think of it this way: Even if everyone were so altruistic that they would never imagine hoarding food and were always glad to share, we would still need to agree what time dinner is being served!) Against the backdrop of this bedrock view of government - which Weigel's Catholic critics are in no more danger of abandoning than he - the debate among those whom Drew Christiansen calls stringent and permissive just war thinkers in the Catholic intellectual world becomes an important one that is worth following. It is a debate not only over the role and limits of war but over the very meaning of government, the proper role of the nation-state, and the prospects for institutionalizing the rule of law at the international level; it is a debate over globalization, interdependency, and shifting degrees of sovereignty that may be rendering military action increasingly counter-productive in most cases or increasingly important in a few cases - but that is the debate.

If Weigel's indiscriminate broadside inflicts collateral damage against some of his Catholic coreligionists, its intended target is the mainline denominational leadership whose condemnation is not merely of some wars, and is not merely of some warfare, but is such a predictable condemnation of any war and all warfare that they seem to be condemning statecraft itself, which Weigel is certain requires war as a possible instrument. Though he worries that Catholic bishops are not far behind, Weigel is thinking chiefly of mainline Protestants. Some Catholics may in his judgment be misreading the just war theory, but too many Protestant leaders have abandoned it - and this without embracing a thoroughgoing pacifism that is at least honest about the need to suffer in an evil world. That the anti-war stance of mainline Protestants fails to enjoy assent in the pews is, he thinks, is a direct result of its intellectual vacuity.5

Now, before Mennonites either reject or embrace, whole cloth, Weigel's critique of liberal Protestant sort-of-pacifism, they should notice something. Unless they know the larger tradition of Catholic theological debates–both classical and contemporary–they may find that he has forced them back into an old Niebuhrian vise, and then given the handle an extra twist. I refer of course to Reinhold Niebuhr's willingness to recognize Mennonite nonresistance as a legitimate, nonheretical option for Christians, but only if they recognize their ethic as having nothing to say to the tasks of politics and statecraft.(6) This is a view that Weigel has elsewhere endorsed, writing that "Pacifism is a personal commitment that can, arguably, be reconciled with the demands of Christian conscience. But the pacifist conscience, per se, can provide no serious counsel to the statesman."7

The extra twist of the vise is this: Not only would Weigel, like Niebuhr, leave Mennonites with no space between participation in war and muddle-headed liberal pacifism except for a quietistic apolitical nonresistance. And not only would Weigel, like Niebuhr, attempt to do Mennonite theology for Mennonites by telling them that if they escape the vise through politically-active Gandhian nonviolence they will have abandoned authentically Mennonite nonresistance. But further, he would now discredit his own bishops and their recognition that active nonviolence is preferable and efficacious for resisting evil in public (not just personal) spheres, he would seem to ignore John Paul II's celebration of that public efficacy,8 and he would thus block the path of collaboration with those stringent just war thinkers who may be best positioned to develop new forms of active nonviolence that make it a tool not just for protest but for governance.

Whether or not Weigel's critique of liberal Protestantism is altogether fair,9 it would be unwise for Mennonites to allow him the role of gate-keeper in their conversations and collaboration with Catholic just war thinkers. No, it would in fact be tragic. For Mennonites do need to find theologically appropriate ways to name the good of government. They long had one way to do so, by affirming the Schleitheim Confession that the sword is "ordained by God outside the perfection of Christ." But politically active nonviolence and the complexities of modern life require modification of the Schleitheim's strict "two-kingdom" duality, at the very least. (10) Active nonviolence will in fact be vulnerable to charges of liberal pacifist utopianism and a lack of moral clarity unless it not only defines an antiwar stance but says more clearly what it is pro. This will mean facing up to the challenges of policing and governance and security that inevitably arise when nonviolent movements actually win. (11)

As Mennonites sharpen their own thinking about how to name the good of government, some of their best allies, collaborators and conversation partners will continue to be the more stringent of Catholic just war thinkers. These are they who have never doubted that government is a created good, yet who share with Mennonites a presumption against violence, who are already committed to developing active nonviolence not just as a personal ethic but as a political strategy, and who celebrate its potential not only to transform our enemies' politics (12) - but our own.