The Catholic Church in the United States has come to identify “peace and justice” issues as the call for the church to speak out and challenge policy makers. The church must not only salve the wounds of war and injustice, but prevent them at their systemic source.
But these days, many of us peace-and-justice Catholics are crestfallen. The prophetic words of the pope and the “deep moral reservations” of the bishops went unheeded by Washington: the country waged a decisive and deadly war in Iraq. President Bush claims a victory for preventive force; the pope laments a defeat for lasting peace. In fact, the church’s stinging critique of war seems hardly audible to the ears of a coalition unwilling to be shocked and awed by anything less than military might.
Yet perhaps we have misconstrued peace-and-justice work and placed too much hope in the wrong place. Why has public policy become the focus of our politics as a church? Why do we assume that the government forum is the key locus for peace and justice? Consider this: as Washington prepared for war in Iraq, tens of thousands of Catholics prepared to wage it. Perhaps their voices did not matter much to President Bush, but if the church had followed Dorothy Day’s advice for action in times of unjust wars and “urged a mighty league of conscientious objectors,” his ears would have perked up.
Let’s be honest: most Catholics who fought in Iraq were not conscientious objectors (C.O.’s)—those who have come to reject all forms of war (a right upheld by the church and by U.S. law). Most did not wish even to be Selective Conscientious Objectors (S.C.O.’s)—those who refuse to fight in unjust wars (upheld by the church, refused by U.S. law). Indeed, the number of young Catholics who wanted to opt out of combat in the Iraq conflict was not legion. But it was not zero.
We ought to dwell a bit on the tough spot in which many soldiers now find themselves, a situation not resolved by mere pledges to support the troops. All the soldiers deserve our prayers, and many appreciate the yellow ribbons worn and the flags waved. More importantly, as these soldiers come home from Iraq, we must tend to their wounds—wounds from a personal encounter with the killing that is a part of war—so often ignored in postwar victory grandstanding. But some soldiers still fighting need even more particular support. For instance, a number of Catholic soldiers and flyers were in contact with us at the Catholic Peace Fellowship. They were deeply torn, in a crisis of conscience, about their participation in this war.
Consider a 25-year-old Catholic who is asked to carry out a bombing raid that may cause civilian deaths. He is not told the specifics, only the coordinates he is to strike. What if he has been listening to the pope, praying each night and has come to think of this war as a pre-emptive act of aggression? Are we supposed to tell him that the time for conscientious objection passed when he enlisted after a military recruiter came to his inner-city high school? Will cries of “support the troops” help him get to sleep each night?
Soldiers and flyers like this seek out information on the process of conscientious objection, what the law requires and what the church teaches. Yet far more Catholic troops do not even know the church supports S.C.O.’s as well as C.O.’s—because the church has not told them. Perhaps our efforts to influence the war decision by caucusing with Condoleezza Rice and sending Cardinal Pio Laghi to the White House let us downplay other pastoral questions being asked right now.
But these are the questions not of Washington, but of young cadets who will fight the war, of F-18 pilots who are in Iraq now. And the bishops owe them answers, Catholic answers. One Eastern rite Catholic bishop—John Michael Botean of the Romanian rite in the United States—attempted such an answer. Invoking his authority as bishop, he ordered all reserve or active-duty soldiers in his diocese to refuse participation in the war. He relied on the words of the pope, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the church’s tradition on conscientious objection to make his point.
Bishop Botean points to No. 1903 in the catechism: “If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.” Acknowledging the “prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” (No. 2309), the bishop also makes clear—a point those like George Weigel are never quick to mention—that their prudential judgment can be wrong. “Jesus Christ and his Church, not the state, are the ultimate informers of conscience for the Catholic,” Bishop Botean writes.
Yet the bishop is as unconcerned with statecraft as he is with debating George Weigel. He is shepherding his flock, families for whom deployment in this war is not a matter of policy but a reality that hits close to home. If an unjust war means unjust killing, he wants his flock to avoid participation in the attack just as it would avoid participation in abortion. He knows that war does not most deeply scar the bodies and souls of Washington leaders or policy pundits, but the people called upon to execute it. And so he spoke to them directly: “I believe that Christ, whose flock you are, expects more than silence from me on behalf of the souls committed to my protection and guidance.”
This approach may go too far, making the shepherd just another field commander giving orders. And it may underestimate the conscience of soldiers who listened to the church but came to peace about their role. Yet it also broke the silence and gave an answer to the questions soldiers were asking but bishops were ignoring. “If I fight, am I sinning?” “If I refuse, am I a traitor?” And we, what shall we do?
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, did not remain silent. In a statement on March 19, the first night of the war, Bishop Gregory said, “We reiterate our long-standing support for those who pursue conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection.” This promised support of troops who are in a crisis of conscience is not easy. S.C.O. is, after all, illegal. All of us in the church must work to turn this promise into pastoral assistance for these soldiers. Otherwise, we offer them no support at all.
What, then, can be done in the future? Chaplains and bishops, especially those in the military archdiocese, can tell soldiers and reservists awaiting deployment that if a war is unjust, they have, at the very least, the right to refuse participation, come what may, and that the church will stand by them. Wherever the idea comes from that says soldiers cannot discriminate which wars to fight in, it surely does not come from the Catholic tradition. The Second Vatican Council referred to unjust killing in war and stated, “we cannot commend too highly the courage of the men who openly and fearlessly resist those who issue orders of this kind” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 79).
The military is not so free with commendations for S.C.O.’s. Soldiers who refuse certain, though not all, military action have no legal recourse. Department of Defense directives do, however, recognize soldiers-turned-C.O.’s who have a “crystallization of conscience” that moves them to a “sincere and deeply held” rejection of war in any form. Even in a time of war, these soldiers are entitled to an immediate removal from duties in which they might kill and a review process to determine their permanent status. Does this offer any practical benefit to Catholics whose resistance is grounded in just war criteria and not pacifism? Maybe.
In the Iraqi conflict, Pope John Paul II led bold moves to link just war criteria (the basis for S.C.O.) more and more to complete rejection of violence (the basis for C.O.). In fact, it seems the church’s position on war is going the way of its teaching on the death penalty: a practical rejection of violence as a viable solution to problems (see “Whither the Just War?” Am., 3/24). This new development emerges from the pope’s mantra that “war is never the answer.” Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesperson, commented that the conditions of just warfare are now “practically nonexistent” (Am., 3/17).
If soldiers can ground their resistance in this church language—and regulations require that C.O. beliefs be rooted in a religious or moral system—they might not have to be strict pacifists to show opposition to modern warfare. Yet we also must recognize that their resistance might not be recognized as legitimate by the military, and for that they would suffer on a deep personal, financial and social level. All of this points to the need for church support that addresses rather than ignores our tradition of C.O. and S.C.O. The most important step is to provide counselors who can walk with soldiers who follow their conscience into this thorny and intimidating process.
The antiwar movement clearly has lifted the spirit and the hopes of many who thought the church had been co-opted by the state. Yet thus far the movement has been a coalition of peace-and- justice folks marching in the streets and church officials lobbying in Washington. In the time of Jesus, “Soldiers also asked John the Baptist, ‘And we, what shall we do?’” (Lk 3:14). Who will understand the dilemma of modern soldiers, and not dismiss them as part of the problem? Who will boldly answer their question?