In 1918, this American Catholic accepted a death sentence rather than go to war

These photos were taken August 16, 1920, at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane. Salmon had been on a hunger strike for 34 days. (National Archives and Records Administration via the website BenSalmon.org) These photos were taken August 16, 1920, at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane. Salmon had been on a hunger strike for 34 days. (National Archives and Records Administration via the website BenSalmon.org)

The centenary of the entry by the United States into World War I provides an important opportunity for Americans, especially American Catholics, to become better acquainted with a remarkable figure. Ben Salmon, who accepted a death sentence (later commuted) rather than ignore his moral convictions, is a bracing witness to what it means to stand courageously by the judgment of one’s conscience, formed by Catholic faith.

In 1917 laws regarding conscientious objection allowed that status to be claimed only by members of churches long recognized for their pacifist teachings. But Salmon would now have an easier time demonstrating that those convictions are in accord with—if not exclusively embraced by—his own Catholic Church. Indeed, he may one day be recognized as a prophet who helped lead his church in a direction as surprising as it is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

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Ben Salmon may one day be recognized as a prophet who helped lead his church in a direction as surprising as it is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Born in 1899, Benjamin Joseph Salmon was raised in a working-class Catholic family in Denver, Colo. He became politically active as young man, while supporting himself in a variety of office jobs. In 1914 he began working full time for the Colorado Single Tax Association, an organization that focused primarily on tax reform but also addressed other political issues. He edited the organization's weekly newspaper and wrote articles on topics like capital punishment, the economy and war. His statements on the latter topic leave no doubt that Salmon’s pacifism was in place well before the prospect arose of his own military conscription. Salmon actively supported Woodrow Wilson in his 1916 run for a second term as president. Wilson's successful campaign, it should be noted, included proud declarations that he had kept the United States out of the war then raging in Europe.

But increased German aggression toward the United States, including unrestricted submarine warfare against even nonmilitary ships in the North Atlantic, pushed the nation into the conflict. In April 1917, in response to the president’s request, Congress declared war. Six weeks later, Wilson signed a law that required all American men between 21 and 30 years of age to register for military service. Within a few months, 10 million men had registered.

Many of them, of course, were Catholic. Their church had left little doubt where it stood on the matter of the war and military service. On the eve of Congress’s declaration of war, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, the most prominent Catholic leader in the United States and the closest thing the American church had to a primate, had said in a statement issued to the press: “In the present emergency it behooves every American citizen to do his duty…. The primary duty of a citizen is loyalty to country. This loyalty...is exhibited by an absolute and unreserved obedience to his country’s call.”

Relying on Conscience

Salmon, then 28 and newly married, saw the matter differently. On June 5, 1917, he registered but on the same day mailed a letter to President Wilson. He wrote:

Regardless of nationality, all men are my brothers. God is “our Father who art in heaven.” The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is unconditional and inexorable.

If the parent orders the child to do wrong, the child should disobey. If the State commands the subject to violate God’s law, the subject should ignore the State. Man comes before the State and God is supreme over both.
Both by precept and example, the lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that He sealed His belief with death on the cross. The great mass of the people still adhere to Christ’s teachings against war, regardless of the fact that cardinals, priests, and ministers have repudiated the Christian ideal and bowed to the god of expediency.

Salmon implored Wilson to find a way to avoid war, then concluded: “[W]hen human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the army.”

In December 1917, a questionnaire, intended to provide further information to help determine each man’s military classification, arrived in the mail. Salmon refused to complete it. He was arrested for this in January, then released on bail in March. By then his parish’s Knights of Columbus chapter had expelled Salmon from the organization. They and others he encountered in Denver made no secret of their disdain for the choices Salmon was making. The Denver Post described Salmon as “the man with a yellow streak down his spine as broad as a country highway,” and he became well-known enough nationally to attract criticism from The New York Times.

The Denver Post described Salmon as “the man with a yellow streak down his spine as broad as a country highway,”

In May, Salmon received a summons from the local draft board to appear for conscription on May 20. He responded with a letter explaining that he could not do that and was arrested again.

Salmon was charged as a deserter and sentenced to death. At some point in the following weeks, the sentence was changed to 25 years of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. Even as the war ended a month later, Salmon’s long sentence lay ahead of him. Within two and half years, however, many Americans had begun to second-guess the wisdom of entering the conflict in Europe. On Nov. 26, 1920, the War Department pardoned and released Salmon along with 32 other conscientious objectors.

After his release, Salmon moved with his wife to Chicago, where they raised four children. But his chronic poor health, largely a result of prison conditions, kept them in poverty. He died of pneumonia at age 43.

Just War’ Doctrine

Salmon’s refusal of military service was not based on a belief that the U.S. involvement in the Great War was contrary to just war principles, which were even then widely known both inside and outside the church—though they were largely overlooked in the rush by Catholic leaders to demonstrate patriotism and support the war effort. Rather, as his letter to the president made clear, Salmon rejected those principles as a denial of the teaching and example of Jesus. Was Salmon, then, acting out of convictions in opposition to Catholic doctrine?

In fact, though the just war approach is well established in Catholic tradition, the weight it carries as official and authoritative Catholic doctrine is surprisingly small.

Some may object, pointing to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which lays out the familiar theory in some detail (Nos. 2308-14). Acknowledging the right of governments to self-defense “once all peace efforts have failed,” the doctrine enumerates specific conditions under which war may justly be entered and according to which it must be fought.

Though the just war approach is well established in Catholic tradition, the weight it carries as doctrine is surprisingly small.

But an important hermeneutical principle, provided by no less an authority than the future Pope Benedict XVI, offers some insight. Following publication of the catechism in 1992, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the catechism’s primary compiler, published a helpful essay on its nature and history (published in 1994 by Ignatius Press as Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, co-authored by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn).

On the subject of the catechism’s authority, Ratzinger notes in his essay that the book is “not...a sort of super-dogma, as its opponents would like to insinuate in order to cast suspicion on it as a danger to the liberty of theology.” Then, following a citation of John Paul II on the catechism as “a sure norm for instruction in the faith,” Ratzinger offers an important sentence: “The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess.”

The various doctrines of the church bear different levels of doctrinal authority. Pope Pius IX’s infallible declaration of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, for example, bears much authoritative weight. Publication in the catechism, Ratzinger means to tell us, does not add to that weight. On the other hand, recognition of the existence of guardian angels, supported by a few Scripture stories and much pious tradition, is a less authoritative teaching and does not become more authoritatively taught because it appears in the catechism.

What doctrinal weight did the just war theory possess prior to the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church? The answer is: little. The theologian Todd D. Whitmore of the University of Notre Dame has summarized the matter succinctly: “The just war tradition itself was never formally declared Catholic doctrine but achieved the force of history by the accrual of writing and teaching over time.”

After being initially articulated by Saints Ambrose and Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries—in what might be called opposition to an earlier, more pacifist Christian tradition—just war thinking was further developed by St. Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians. Since then, it seems more accurate to say that the tradition has been presumed by the magisterium rather than than proposed or defended by it. It can be found articulated in no papal encyclical or by any council, making its first substantive appearance in an ecclesiastical document in the 1992 catechism—in which, Ratzinger tells us, it bears only the authority that it brought along with it.

The World Needs ‘Unarmed Prophets’

If Ben Salmon had some steady ground to stand on in his rejection of the just war tradition in 1917, his footing would be even more solid today. Consider that when the U.S. bishops published The Challenge of Peace in 1983, their pastoral letter on war and peace, they presented the just war theory and pacifism as two legitimate alternatives offered by Christian tradition. Less than a decade later, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical “Centesimus Annus” (1991), praised the activists who worked to bring an end to the Soviet empire “by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice.” The pope continued: “I pray that this example will prevail in other places and other circumstances. May people learn to fight for justice without violence, renouncing class struggle in their internal disputes, and war in international ones” (No. 23).

In 1983, the U.S. bishops presented the just war theory and pacifism as two legitimate alternatives offered by Christian tradition.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, approved for publication in 2004 by Pope Benedict XVI, includes this striking passage (No. 496), which includes a quotation from an address by John Paul II:

Violence is never a proper response. With the conviction of her faith in Christ and with the awareness of her mission, the Church proclaims “that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.”
The contemporary world too needs the witness of unarmed prophets, who are often the objects of ridicule.

Though the compendium goes on to acknowledge the just war tradition, the passage above, taken at face value, is very nearly a repudiation of that tradition.

Pope Benedict XVI provided further support to the demands of nonviolence when he spoke, in a homily in 2007, of nonviolence and love of one’s enemy as “the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution.’” Most recently, Pope Francis chose as the topic of the World Day of Peace message for 2017 (the 50th annual papal message) “nonviolence as a style of politics for peace.” The pope wrote:

In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms….Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world. At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all…. To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.

It is noteworthy that the papal message came just months after participants at a Vatican conference, co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, appealed to the pope to issue an encyclical that would reorient the church’s approach to war and peace issues. The group proposed that the pope formally reject just war teaching and embrace instead “a new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence.”

In 1917 Ben Salmon was unable to demonstrate that conscientious objection was a legitimate expression of the formal teachings of his own church. In 2017 he would have a much easier time doing so. Following his death, it seems that Salmon’s own wife, Elizabeth, was embarrassed or troubled enough by her husband’s choices that decades later, his own adult children knew nothing of them. Today, his story deserves to be told with pride among American Catholics.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Vince Killoran
2 months 3 weeks ago

An excellent, well-researched essay.

Henry George
2 months 2 weeks ago

If only we all had Ben Salmon's courage and faith.

Bernard Survil
2 months 1 week ago

Barry Hudock did indeed do some good research. Much of it and more can be found at: www.bensalmon.org an outreach project of "Friends of Franz and Ben." As a member I can say we are in communications with like-minded people in Chicago, but especially in Denver where Ben lived most of his early life and was married in Holy Family Church. On June 20, 2017 some 25 people gathered at Ben's unmarked grave site in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Hillside, IL. Since that time our group has campaigned to erect a marker which quotes Ben as saying: "There is no such thing as a Just War.." Members of our group -- some of whom attended the beatification of Blessed Franz Jaegerstatter in Linz, Austria, October, 2007 --are accepting invitations to speak to the issue: It's time to advance the Cause for this AMERICAN conscientious objector to war.
Fr. Bernard Survil, Ph: 724-523-0291, [email protected]

John Sniegocki
2 months 1 week ago

Thank you, Barry, for this very thoughtful article on a truly inspiring man whose courage and nonviolent witness is so much needed in our world today.

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