His claim appears to be not that the war in Iraq is manifestly unjust, and that those of us who do not think so are dissenting from Church teaching because two Popes and who knows how many other theologians have said, several times, that "unilateral" and "preventative" or "pre-emptive" warfare is contrary to Just War Theory. Rather, he claims only that, whether or not the war in Iraq is objectively just or unjust, faithful Roman Catholics are bound to accept the judgments of Pope John Paul the Great, Pope Benedict XVI, and the many other worthies of the hierarchy who have decided that the war is, in fact, unjust according to the necessary and sufficient conditions of Just War Theory. For Joe, then, the requirement to give intellectual assent applies not just to magisterial Church teachings, but to the prudential judgments of certain prelates and theologians. Whether or not Joe intends this argument to be a mere tu quoque (he avers as how many "conservative" Catholics are just as much cafeteria Catholics as anybody else when it comes to issues such as this one) is, I suppose, beside the point--it is a claim seriously made and must be seriously addressed.
In all fairness I must point out that this may not, in the end, be the most accurate statement of Joe's position--it is entirely possible that I still do not fully understand him, so I strongly recommend that folks have a look at his argument for themselves. His posts are long, and thoughtfully argued, so I cannot pretend to be doing justice to them by giving a quick summary.
As for my position, I have no illusions that my views about the war in Iraq are shared by Pope Benedict XVI, or indeed by many in the episcopacy. I am an American, and many of them are Europeans, and, to be blunt, I attribute much of our disagreement to that. Nor will all American conservatives agree--there is a fair amount of isolationism among certain quarters of the conservative domain. My view is not a fully theological view--it is partly a moral claim. In my opinion the war is not merely a just war, it is a war that we are morally obliged to fight and to win. I believe this because I believe that we have a moral obligation to vindicate the rights of those who are not capable of vindicating their own rights. This vindication may take many forms, but in some cases only military intervention will be effective.
Whether this in itself will make the war justifiable from the point of view of Just War Theory is an open question, in my view. I do not take it as obvious that the war in Iraq does not meet the criteria of Just War Theory, but I am certainly open to the possibility that it does not, even though at present I believe that it does. But it is certainly worth noting, whatever else one might think about Just War Theory, that doctrine does, indeed, undergo development over time, and our understanding of Just War Theory is not something that we can regard as definitively settled even while we do believe that it is definitively settled that all warfare must be just. One of the criteria of a Just War, according to the classical formulation that we find in such authors as Aquinas, is that the cause be just. Just think about that criterion for a second. If you were to ask yourself, Is this war just? you would apparently have to also ask yourself Is my cause just? If that's not a question that is bound to lead to some question begging down the line somewhere, then I don't know what would count as question begging. The situation is fraught with difficulty, as they say.
Much of this, however, is irrelevant to the question of whether the Church requires assent to the prudential judgments of Popes and other Bishops. History is littered with manifestly bad prudential judgments of Popes and other Bishops, though, so one would think that a self-proclaimed "progressive Catholic" would be somewhat circumspect in this matter. It was the prudential judgment of several Popes that being a slave does not harm human dignity, but Vatican II taught otherwise. This is a clear case of the development of doctrine. We do not want to say that the Church's magisterial teachings are open to change, otherwise there can never be any assurance that what the Church teaches is definitively true. The truth is irreformable. But our understanding of the truth is not irreformable. We are now in a position to draw an important distinction--to say that, with regard to being a slave, there is one sense in which it does not harm human dignity, but another sense in which it does. From the point of view of the human essence, nothing temporal or corporal can change the fact that we are all, fully and equally, human beings, created by God out of love. Even the most abject slave under the worst conditions is no better or worse, qua human essence, than any other human being. But from the point of view of our capacity to pursue our divinely ordained end as humans, it is equally clear that slavery is an impediment and, as such, it is per se wrong to keep any human being as a slave. Did the Popes who said that serving as a slave is not harmful to human dignity mean it in the sense that I have outlined here? Probably not. The sense in which they intended it was probably false (though it is difficult to know for sure just what their innermost thoughts were), though in the end there is a sense in which the claim is true. A sense that must be balanced against the sense of Vatican II, which also must be regarded as true.
Some folks will complain that this is a kind of "backwards engineering", trying to force truth upon opinions that we no longer regard as true under ordinary conditions. There is a tension here. On the one hand, we do tend to think that our own views about morality are somehow benefitting from generations of hard work by moralists and theologians (not to mention historians, scientists, and all the others who contribute to the body of human knowledge). On the other hand, we must guard against the temptation to be overly positivistic about this fact--we must be careful not fall into the hubris of thinking that because we have come along at this moment in history therefore we must always be right and the moralists and theologians of the past, whenever they disagree with us, must be wrong. But we must also guard against the temptation to think that truth is relative. If we really do believe that the Church's magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit, and if we really do believe that truth is not relative, then we are not "backwards engineering" the truth when we try to find ways of understanding just how the Holy Spirit has worked in the Church through centuries of temporal and contingent human history. If you don't accept the indefectibility of the Church and her magisterium, none of this is a problem. But then you're not a Catholic. Indeed, if you reject the indefectibility of the Church's magisterium, you don't have any reason to believe anything with any confidence. There will be no reason to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or even that God exists--both of these claims are taught by the Church through her Scriptures and her Tradition. If the Church is not indefectible, then she may very well be wrong about the existence of God and there is no compelling reason why we ought to believe these things.
One of John Henry Cardinal Newman's most important works, in my opinion, is also one of his least read: An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, published in 1870. In this work Cardinal Newman explores the epistemology of intellectual assent of the sort required by the Church, and he notes that giving intellectual assent does not always entail fully agreeing with or even understanding what one is giving assent to. A favorite example of mine is what he has to say about the Athanasian Creed. He reminds us that it is also known as the "Psalmus Quicunque" and that
It is not a mere collection of notions, however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith, with which we warn first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be, if we know what to believe and yet believe not.Newman isolates two kinds of assent in his Essay. One form he calls "real assent", the other "notional assent". The latter is the sort that we give to demonstrative proofs; the former is the sort that we give to "realities", things that we have experienced in a more vivid way than by merely having them proved to us by a formally valid deduction. I can give notional assent without giving real assent, simply because the two kinds of assent are given to two very different kinds of object. This does not mean that they ought not always to be given together: clearly they ought to be if they can be. But it is not always possible that they come at the same time.
This is all a very long way of suggesting that it may be possible for folks who do not agree with Popes about slavery or the war in Iraq to still be operating within the confines of intellectual assent. We may assent without fully agreeing, and this does not entail dissent, especially if the form our disagreement takes turns out to be misunderstanding. Popes have a certain authority in matters of faith and morals that ordinary lay people do not have. If this were an argument about what follows, logically, from certain theological first principles, or which theological first principles are to be believed de fide, I would be a fool to say that the Pope has no more authority than I to make a determination of justice. But Pope Benedict XVI, for all his theological training and expertise in matters of morality and theology, may not, in the end, have all of the facts required for making the sort of judgment he is out to make. Of course, I may not have all the facts either. But given that it is a disagreement about matters of contingent fact, about empirical evidence in support of a claim of moral licitness, then Pope Benedict XVI has no more authority than I or anyone else to make the final call.
A similar case can be made about the death penalty. Although I am, myself, in agreement with John Paul the Great on this matter, I do not think that those who favor the death penalty are actually in a state of dissent. The Church has never taught, it never will teach, and JPII was not teaching, that the death penalty is per se wrong. Whether there are, or ever could be, conditions under which capital punishment would be required to protect the common good is not a moral judgment, but a prudential one, and JPII may very well have been mistaken in making the judgment that such conditions no longer obtain. I happen to think he was not mistaken, but of course, I could be mistaken. Those who disagree with me, I take it, do not do so as a matter of intentionally rejecting what they believe to be a teaching of the magisterium. Presumably they would say that they do not think that they are dissenting from what the Church teaches, but that they intend to be faithful and submissive to what they believe the Church does teach. There is disagreement, not dissent.