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War, peace and the Catholic conscience

The mid-20th century poet Robert Lowell relates, “I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,/and made my manic statement/telling off the state and the president.” He ended up sentenced to a year during which got a view of the Hudson River once a day while he was on his jail’s roof for exercise. Lowell’s autobiographical poem about that year is “Memories of West Street and Lepke.” He notes that his fellow “jailbirds” included a Jehovah’s Witness, a vegetarian who got beaten up for trying to convert pimps to his diet and a mob hit man. Catholics didn’t necessarily get a deferment or alternative service or a stint with the medical corps if they were pacifists. In those days, Quakers were more likely to get those options.

In the United States, Catholics historically spent considerable energy proving that they were good, loyal citizens. This was largely due to the view that they owed political allegiance to a foreign power, the Vatican. Catholics rarely, if ever, identified themselves as pacifist or conscientious objectors. Within recent decades that has changed, as there have been moves to canonize C.O.s as saints. Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian, was imprisoned and executed for refusing to support Adolf Hitler and for resisting conscription into service in the Nazi army. His Catholicism led him to this stance, but it didn’t offer him much support. His pastor reportedly encouraged Franz, who was the church’s sacristan and a father of three, to go along with the machinations of the state for the sake of his family. He has now been beatified, which is the step that comes before official recognition in Catholicism as a saint.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker (d. 1980), was an outspoken pacifist. She didn’t get much encouragement from New York’s Cardinal Spellman, who oversaw the military vicariate. The current archbishop of New York, however, is actively promoting her cause for sainthood and the Catholic bishops of the United States in 2012 unanimously added their support. The Vatican by that time had officially bestowed on her the title “Servant of God.” Church history is full of these ironies in which those whose orthodoxy or holiness had been publicly questioned were later found to be exemplars of the faith.

It might be helpful to look at how official Catholic teaching treats the matter of one’s obligation to civil society, what constitutes a just war and what is considered valid grounds for conscientious objection or resistance. The first Scriptural passage typically cited on these matters is Jesus’ response to the question of taxes: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Catholics have consistently been taught that obedience to and cooperation with, those who govern is corollary to the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. It is also an obligation in accord with the virtue of justice. That means obeying laws, paying taxes, contributing to society, honoring and defending one’s country. Patriotism has been prized among Catholics.

Those holding public office or exercising civil authority are understood to have grave obligations to respect human rights and human dignity, to enforce law and public order and to promote and protect the common good. When officials flaunt these goods, the obligation of citizens to obey ends. During the apostolic era and in the example of Christian martyrs, we see refusals to comply. People cannot be compelled to cooperate with evil or obey commands suppressing truth. St. Peter’s response when the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem tried to silence the followers of Christ is often quoted: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Yes, Christians are expected to be good citizens, but, no, they cannot obey orders to do what is wrong.

Catholics are faced with a quandary. On one hand, enlisting in the military to defend one’s country is a patriotic act of service, a sacrificial gesture nobly intended to defend what is right and good in one’s native land. On the other hand, the person serving is also morally obliged to examine what he or she is being commanded to do and to resist when he or she perceives it to be wrong. Trials about war crimes have shown that “just obeying orders” isn’t sufficient reason to be an accomplice or agent of evil. And then there is the tension between the just war tradition and Christian pacifism; the church respects both. The pacifist is considered to be taking a prophetic position: holding up an example of what the ideal of the Kingdom of God would be like. Meanwhile, the one who bears arms for the sake of justice is seen as living out the critical tension of that Kingdom which has been described as “already, but not yet.” There are reasons — like defending people and saving their lives — which may allow for the taking of lives. It’s an accommodation that has been in place since the Roman Empire became Christian.

One of the clearest enunciations of the Catholic just war tradition was set forth by the Catholic bishops of the United States in their pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace.” Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, native son of South Carolina and a priest of the Diocese of Charleston before he became auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, then archbishop of Cincinnati, then cardinal archbishop of Chicago, was a major architect of that 1983 document. The prospectus for the document ended up getting him on the cover of Time magazine in November 1982 under the heading “The Bishops and the Bomb.”

A major theme of the pastoral letter, actually released some six months after the Time feature, was the immorality of anti-population weaponry and the arms race. It included a detailed segment on the criteria for a just war, based on reflections dating back as far as those found in St. Augustine in the latter fourth and early fifth centuries and St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The criteria identified were seven: 1) just cause, which is to say a concerted defense against potentially grave harm; 2) right intention, namely the restoration of peace and order as quickly as possible; 3) legitimate authority — that is, declaration by those rightly governing; 4) last resort, the only recourse after negotiations, attempts at reasonable compromise and treaty-making have been exhausted; 5) proportionality, which means that foreseeable harm done does not exceed the good hoped to be accomplished; 6) comparative justice, which has to do with the conduct of war, condemning indiscriminate killing and the use of anti-population weapons; 7) probability of success, acknowledging that this cannot be absolutely predicted but that troops are not being sent into battle on a suicide mission.

Catholicism teaches that we have an obligation to form our consciences with all the resources of faith and reason available. It declares that the human person has within his or her heart “a law inscribed by God.” Conscience is the person’s “most secret core and his sanctuary … [where] he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church highlights this definition. That arena of mind and soul must be revered and each individual is obliged to follow his or her conscience.

Thus, it is theoretically possible that in a particular instance of war, a good Catholic might end up with any of three outcomes: 1) serving and supporting the war effort, with a conviction that the war is indeed necessary and just, 2) conscientiously objecting to this particular war or something which occurs within it; or 3) refusing to participate because of a commitment to pacifism and non-violence. The lights given us may vary.

All of this speaks to the solemn events which we recall as we commemorate Memorial Day and D-Day 2020.

Sister Pamela Smith, SS.C.M., serves as director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. She holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Duquesne University and is the author of 14 books, with two additional forthcoming in 2020. If you have a question you might like to see addressed in a future column, please let us know — email Associate Editor Prioleau Alexander at

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The Carolina Compass is designed to appeal to the faithful as well as the seeker, giving historical windows into church life and showing the hands and feet of the faithful doing good works in their communities. We shall also shine a light on worldwide persecution of Christians and how we can support the faithful. A wide variety of perspectives on faith, mission work and healing will be inside the paper. Christian correspondents come from all over the globe and up and down our coast.
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