President Trump provided an insight into his thought processes when he reversed an order to attack an Iranian military installation in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. reconnaissance drone. Apparently, we were “cocked and loaded,” our planes in the air, or about to be, when he asked for an assessment of the damage expected from the attack.
Being advised that as many as 150 deaths were likely, he rescinded the strike order. Those deaths, he felt, would not have been “proportionate” to the loss we suffered, and so not justified by what Iran had done.
Trump isn’t Catholic. In fact, his religious identity is rather unclear. But his use of the term, “proportionate” suggests that his thinking is at least somewhat informed by Catholic social teaching.
Perhaps among those advising him there’s someone who has a Catholic perspective. My hunch is that it may be Vice President Mike Pence, who while an Evangelical now, was raised in the Catholic Church.
Trump took criticism for this reversal, which was seen by some as a sign of indecisiveness on his part. Others applauded his restraint, observing that it strengthened his hand, clearing the way for us to strike even harder, should the Iranians commit another provocative act.
I take the latter view, though I suspect there was more to this last-minute change of direction. It’s possible that Trump was attempting to exploit division within the Iranian leadership, or maybe he had received some back-channel indications of a receptiveness to further negotiations.
Diplomacy is always complex and multi-layered.
Nevertheless, what we heard from the president was an echo of Catholic Just War Theory.
The Church teaches that for a war to be just it must meet certain qualifications. For instance, it must be declared by a competent authority (individual citizens or lower-level officials cannot make war on other nations or groups). Also, there must be a reasonable chance of winning (calling people to risk their lives in a cause that is likely impossible is not just).
There are other criteria as well. But perhaps the most important is that action taken must be proportionate to the action provoking it. And that is the point which the President seems to have grasped (or at least emphasized).
He saw that the destruction of human life would be greatly disproportionate to the destruction of a drone — sophisticated and expensive as that piece of equipment was. And in that he acted from a position of Christian principle.
These are precisely the kinds of concerns on which the Church is obliged to speak — and our elected leaders are bound to consider. In fact, I see in this incident an example of the proper relationship between moral teaching and civic responsibility.
Too often priests, bishops and theologians are tempted to make high-sounding pronouncements on specific questions of government policy. And just as often our officials ignore them — which seems to set public authority against Church authority.
But as sincere and fervent as these pastoral entreaties might be, the fact is churchmen have neither the competence nor the responsibility to make such judgments. Our role is to be moral teachers.
We should avoid the temptation to lecture public officials on how they ought to be meeting our expectations. Rather, we must constantly bring those who possess the relevant authority back to the eternal truths of right and wrong on which difficult decisions must be based in order to be morally valid.
That’s the church-state balance on which our country was originally founded.
We celebrate the Fourth of July this week. In our ideologically distorted age, don’t let anyone try to convince you of the trendy notion that America rests on secular, “Enlightenment” principles. Instead, be clear on the fact that the very idea of America is profoundly moral and profoundly religious.
As John Adams put it, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Deep in his heart, President Trump seems to understand this. God bless him for it.
And God bless America.
A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals.