Fighting Words: Why Catholics Disagree About War

by David Scott

At the height of the U.S.-led war in the Persian Gulf a year ago, a pop-radio station in Erie, Pennsylvania decided to take a poll.

Who is the greater monster, the station wondered, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or the Benedictine nuns who run Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace group based in Erie?

It was a tight race, but the nuns won.

Erie is one of those all-American cities where companies test market their products to gauge how well they’ll sell in other parts of the company.

And since seven out of every ten residents are Catholic, Erie might also be considered a barometer of current Catholic thinking and opinion.

In fact, the Erie radio poll was fairly representative of today’s Catholic conversation about war. When Catholics talk about war, it’s more like an argument than a dialogue—passionate beliefs clash on a battlefield where nobody gives an inch and there’s no neutral ground. And in the year since the Gulf War, participants say, the debate is getting louder and more urgent.

“Certainly the discussion is very lively,” says Gordan Zahn, who, since his refusal on religious grounds to fight in World War II, has gone on to become the elder statesman of the U.S. Catholic peace movement.

At no time since the national discussions leading up to the U.S. bishops’ landmark pastoral letter of 1983, “The Challenge of Peace,” has Catholic debate been so charged and animated, he and others maintain.

A new world order is taking shape; and that new order means that U.S. Catholics will have to rethink their ideas about war, agrees George Weigel, director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and author of Tranquillitas Ordinis (Oxford, 1987), a book about the Catholic conversation on war and peace.

Since Catholics last argued about war nearly a decade ago, the map of the world has been redrawn by the collapse of communism in Europe.

Moreover, Operation Desert Storm shook up many Catholics. In that 43-day war television brought home the awesome destructive power of modern weapons and fighting strategies, which killed nearly 200,000 Iraqis and reduced their country to what a United Nations’ investigating team called a “preindustrial state.”

For many Catholic analysts the fall of communism and the Gulf War are signs of the beginning of a new era in which there will be new causes for fighting and new moral dilemmas for believers. In the past Catholic talk about war was shaped by the cold war against communism and the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

In this new era the trouble spots won’t be found in Europe but in the Third World. Disputes will likely center not around ideologies but around trade, ways of life, and access to key resources, such as oil, water, metals, and human labor.

As Catholics enter this brave new world, their conversation returns almost instinctively to familiar landmarks of moral guidance. For some, it is the traditional just-war teaching that will provideCatholics with the ethical mooring they need to adequately weigh future threats to U.S. security and world order. For others, the just-war theory will no longer do the job and Catholics should look to gospel nonviolence to resist evil in the new world order.

What Makes Wars “Just”

Whatever their opinion, analysts agree that the just-war tradition gained the upper hand during the national debate leading up to Operation Desert Storm.

Before and during the war, the ancient war thinking of Church scribes and theologians became the subject of talk shows and newsmagazines. President George Bush even delivered a major speech and applied those moral principles to the conflict in the Persian Gulf.

The principles of the just-war theory originated in some early Christians’ anguished efforts to reconcile the teachings of Jesus—who commanded the love of enemies and proclaimed “blessed are the peacemakers”—with the violence and killing of military service and war.

Such killing and violence could only be tolerated for a just cause, St. Augustine concluded. “Those wars are normally called just which avenge injuries,” he said. Over the centuries theologians elaborated in Augustine’s basic insights and eventually formulated a set of conditions for considering when war was justified and how wars should be fought.

It was decided that wars are never justified to seize territory or gain some other sort of power or advantage. A war is just only where it is waged in self-defense or to help others defend themselves against an unjust attack. Even then war can only be a last resort, and it has to be declared by a duly elected or otherwise legitimate authority. And before going off to war, people should be sure that war won’t result in greater evils than the evils it seeks to correct. Once wars are started, Catholic theologians require that they be waged in such a way that innocent people and nonmilitary targets are protected. Finally, only as much killing and destruction may be done as is necessary to right the wrong that caused the war.

“Just War” is Just War

That venerable code of conduct remains the favorite of many high-level thinkers today.

“Nobody’s ever come up with a better intellectual alternative,” says Father Francis Winters, a top consultant for the bishops’ 1983 peace pastoral and a theologian at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C.

“It is an invaluable tool,” explains Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, Michigan. “It’s not a scientific formula or a computer program that you can just plug the just-war principles into and out comes a solution,” he admits. “But you have set before you the issues, honed by centuries of prayerful reflection, that have to be taken seriously as you consider the question.”

But a number of other Catholics—from the corridors of the Vatican to pews in Brooklyn, New York—would like to see that theory consigned to the scrap heap of history. In July 1991 the influential Roman Jesuit journal, La Civilta Cattolica, which often reflects the opinion of the Vatican’s Secretary of State, editorialized that “the theory of the just war is untenable and needs to be abandoned.”

“It is time to call the so-called just war theory, invoked by every nation in every unjust war, absurd,” agrees Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo, Texas. “It is time for the Catholic Church to declare itself a peace church, withdraw its conditioned moral acceptance of the possession of nuclear weapons, discard the just-war theory, and reject war and every form of violence.”

No one actually fights wars according to the rules of the just-war theory; and it mostly plays into the hands of rulers who want the Church’s blessings for their war schemes, says Sister Christine Mulready, C.S.J., a Brooklyn nun and co-author of a recent open letter that urges Christians to reject the just-war theory and accept the nonviolence of Christ’s gospel.

“Just war is just war,” adds Consuelo Beck-Sague, an Atlanta public-health doctor. She says the U.S. bishops’ continued reliance on the doctrine calls into question whether they are really committed to a “seamless garment” approach that defends the holiness of life against abortion, capital punishment, and war.

The argument that violence and war are sometimes necessary to protect innocent lives is a form of propaganda that tries “to paint us into a position where we see doing unspeakable things to another human being as a necessary evil,” Beck-Sague charges. “That kind of propaganda was used with the Iraqis, and it is used with convicted murderers and even fetuses.”

Beyond the practical arguments, the just-war theory is a philosophy that has no roots in either the New Testament or in the early Christian community, says Ronald Musto, a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and author of The Catholic Peace Tradition(Orbis, 1986), a history of Catholic talk about war and peace. “It has no place theologically within the Catholic tradition,” Musto maintains. “It’s a legal and administrative position; it has nothing to do with religious life.”

He and others believe that, particularly in the troubling new world order, Catholics should return to the sure foundation of the gospel portrait of Jesus.

Would Jesus Fight?

For Father Richard McSorley, S.J., a veteran pacifist and director of Georgetown’s Center for Peace Studies, the issue is a simple question of what Jesus would have done.

“If the basis of talking about war was the gospel instead of the just-war theory, you couldn’t talk about a defensive war,” he says. “Christ condemned war and all killing by telling each individual that we should love one another as a brother and sister and treat each other the way God treats us and the way we want to treat God.”

Since the times of the earliest apostles and martyrs, some Christians have agreed with McSorley that Jesus’ way of love was completely opposed to all violence, no matter how righteous or justified the cause.

“The Lord, in disarming Peter, ungirdled every soldier,” said the Church father Tertullian in the third century, referring to Jesus’ command that St. Peter not take up the sword to defend him from arrest by Roman soldiers.

The heritage of Catholic pacifism and antimilitarism runs from Church fathers, such as Tertullian, Origen, and Lactantius, to modern-day prophets, such as Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

The litany of Catholic saints includes St. Maximilian, who was beheaded in 295 for refusing to serve in the Roman army, and St. Martin of Tours, who in the fourth century renounced his military commission with the words: “I am Christ’s soldier. I am not allowed to fight.”

Zahn is leading the campaign to have the Church canonize Franz Jagerstatter. Jagerstatter was an Austrian farmer who was executed nearly a half century ago after telling the Nazis that as a believing Catholic he was not permitted to perform any military service.

Zahn and others believe that by making Jagerstatter a saint, the Church could send a powerful signal of moral opposition to the swelling ranks of armies and military machines around the world. The Church could also signal its support for nonviolent alternatives to war, possibilities that are gaining increasing attention inside the Church.

“I firmly believe in the gospel of nonviolence,” says Bishop Walter Sullivan, bishop of Richmond, Virginia, and president of Pax Christi USA. “At the same time I believe in the right of persons and even countries to defend themselves. But there are certainly limits to what that means.”

For Sullivan, Catholic pacifism doesn’t mean remaining passive in the face of injustice. The pacifist arsenal contains everything from spiritual weapons, such as prayer, fasting, and self-sacrifice, to various forms of non-cooperation, such as general strikes, work stoppages, and boycotts.

As proof of the power of nonviolence, pacifists point to the success of such measures in the 1989 and 1991 revolutions against communism in Central and Eastern Europe and the earlier success of nonviolence in the U.S. civil-rights movement.

Pacifism and The Pope

Nonviolence is a term that has been cropping up more and more in the writings and talks of Pope John Paul II. Though he made headlines during the Gulf War when he declared “We are not pacifists,” pope-watchers agree that John Paul has come closer to a total condemnation of war than any pope since Benedict XV, who told the belligerents of World War I that the gospel’s law of charity applied to nations as well as individuals.

It is perhaps a curious position for the son of a Polish soldier. But almost at the outset of his pontificate in 1979, John Paul declared unequivocally that violence is evil and unacceptable as a solution to problems and denounced violence as a crime against humanity.

Three years later he argued that the scale and horror of modern warfare has rendered war totally unacceptable as a means of settling differences between nations. And in 1984 he told a group of Italian teenagers that conscientious objection to military service was a sign of maturity. God, the pope concluded in a heartfelt prayer on the eve of the Gulf War, condemns wars.

The U.S. bishops are coming to share the pope’s near outright rejection of war, as is evidenced by the nearly 100 bishops who belong to Pax Christi. “Pacifism is a prophetic position that is beckoning to the Church,” acknowledges Untener. “The closer you get to the gospel, the more difficult it becomes to justify the killing in war.”

What he sees as a growing consensus among the U.S. bishops—that war is essentially not legitimate—worries Winters and other Catholics. Such a position will hamper the bishops’ efforts to provide realistic moral leadership as the U.S. enters a new and uncertain period in world history.

“I don’t know what some of our liberal bishops are thinking,” says William Gill, head of the Catholic War Veterans Association. He bluntly rejects the idea that the United States can defend its interests by nonviolent means: “It’s like the ostrich putting its head in the sand,” he says.

For Archbishop Joseph Ryan, who was decorated for valor as a chaplain in World War II and retired last year as the first head of the nation’s Military Archdiocese, Catholic war talk has focused too much on Jesus’ injunctions against killing and not enough on Jesus’ defense of the weak against the strong.

“I think it’s perfectly all right to be a pacifist,” he says, “but how do they want us to defend anybody?”

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has similar reservations. He says that pacifism is “something that one has a right to uphold for oneself is one is the only person that is going to be injured.”

However, he adds, pacifism is not a morally responsible option for nations that are charged with defending the lives and rights of their citizens. Ryan agrees that it’s okay to turn the other cheek, but “you can’t do that if it harms the human rights of any other individual.”

Citing Pope Pius XII, who said that nations have a right to defend themselves and that Christians can’t in good conscience abandon a nation that is attacked, Ryan maintains that if Christians took Jesus literally, “the Church wouldn’t have been in existence for 2,000 years.”

But Zahn and other Catholics argue that there is a deadly inner logic to violence and war that, once started, causes conflicts to spiral out of moral control and leads Christian soldiers to commit barbarous and unchristian acts.

That logic leads to atrocities like the carpet bombings and nuclear blitz-kriegs of World War II. Zahn cites, too, some of the morally dubious tactics of the Gulf War—where Iraqi soldiers were buried alive and killed while retreating, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed and continue to die as a result of Allied raids on roadways, waterways, and electrical systems.

Although he argues for the continued moral necessity of just war, Winters admits being distressed about the U.S. policy of destroying Iraq’s industrial infrastructure.

Catholics, he says, have to forcefully insist on the critical moral importance of civilian immunity in future wars: “We have to ask, ‘What elements of a modern economy are indispensably linked to the survival of a society?’ Whatever they are, they should be off target. You may not attack anything that the state needs if it is not at war.”

“Oh My God, the Berrigans Have My Son”

Far from the bishops’ chanceries and the academics, it is less than certain whether there is any Catholic conversation on war and peace in the pews and in the military service.

“When anybody has himself dug in a foxhole or flies a plane over the enemy, I don’t feel that he can think too much about [Catholic arguments about war],” says Gill, the Catholic veterans leader. Apart from Catholic teaching, he says, most people sense that natural law gives people a fundamental right to defend themselves.

He adds that Catholics currently account for well over 50 percent of the country’s military forces and have a proud history of support for their country’s wars. In 1884 the U.S. bishops declared, “Our Catholic citizens will be found ready to stand forward as one man, ready to pledge anew their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor (for their country).” Catholics have been on the front lines of every U.S. war since the Revolution of 1776. And until very late in the Vietnam War, those wars had the full moral approval of the country’s bishops.

The family history of William Dwyer, a carpenter in New Orleans, Louisiana, is perhaps emblematic of the U.S. Catholic experience of war. Dwyers fought in every U.S. war from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. Dwyer’s mom was a Marine, and his dad was a bomber pilot in World War II. His Catholic upbringing included membership in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). “I never heard of the option of conscientious objection,” he says. “I was brought up to believe that if you were drafted, it was your duty to go, something you had to do.”

During the Vietnam War, Dwyer underwent what he calls a religious conversion influenced by Catholic charismatics and prophetic, antiwar preachings of the so-called Catholic left.

“I still remember,” says Dwyer, “my mother breaking down, crying, and saying, ‘Oh my God, the Berrigans have my son.’” The Berrigan brothers—Daniel and Philip—symbolized the Vietnam-era awakening of Catholic conscience. And ever since their popular and influential antiwar protests, unquestioning Catholic support for U.S. wars can longer be taken for granted.

Even those who never agreed with the militant antimilitarism of the Catholic left regret what they see as a widespread Catholic ignorance of the Church’s war-and-peace teachings. Like too many other basic Catholic teachings, the Church’s precepts on warfare are not widely known, Bevilacqua acknowledges. “War only becomes an issue when there is a war involving the United States,” the cardinal says. “If we don’t have warfare, I don’t think people are that interested.”

A 1990 study by Pax Christi’s Center on Conscience and War found that basic terms of the Catholic conversation on war weren’t widely recognized by Catholic high-school students and faculty. After years of pastoral work in various parishes, Mulready says the same is true for people in the pews.

“Most [U.S. citizens] form a moral judgement on war based solely on whether or not legitimate authority has called them to arms,” she says.

Who Teaches Peace?

Some say that indifference or rejection of Catholic moral teaching is most pronounced on military bases and battlefields. Although dozens of Catholics applied for conscientious-objector status during the Gulf War, for most Catholic soldiers and chaplains their religion posed no obstacle to their participating in a war.

Marine Corporal Kevin Kirby spent more than nine months in the Persian Gulf after shipping out of Camp Pendleton, California just after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. He attended Mass each week when the Catholic chaplain made his rounds.

But Kirby says neither he nor the chaplain nor his Catholic comrades ever discussed the morality of the conflict or the Church’s teachings on war and peace. Moreover he didn’t hear anything about the Catholic bishops’ debates on the justice of the war or the two letters Ryan wrote to Gulf War chaplains and troops.

He acknowledges that he had never received any formal instruction in the Church’s war-and-peace teachings while growing up. Nevertheless he sensed that he was engaged in an unjust war.

“I feel it wasn’t right for us to be there,” he says. “It wasn’t our war.” Still he would never have considered conscientious objection, even though it is allowed in the Catholic tradition.

“I signed a contract that says that I was a Marine, and I do what they want,” he explains.

The experience of Father Donald Rutherford, a chaplain with the elite 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is similar. He received and read the two letters written by Ryan, the military archbishop, during the war.

But he says he was too busy to initiate discussions on moral issues with troops in his charge. Nor did any Catholic soldiers approach him with moral qualms about the war.

Though he admits that they have little use for the fine points of the Catholic discussion on war, Gill concludes: “Basically, our military people are good, God-fearing people. There’s nobody that hates war any more than veterans because they know war, and war is hell.”

Wherever they stand on war, Catholics agree that their conversation has reached a new moment with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And many agree that future Catholic war talk should include a push for peace dividend. Monies customarily spent on preparing for war with the U.S.S.R. should be redirected toward ending the root causes of war—poverty and an unjust distribution of wealth in the world.

Time To Fight For Peace

But while Bevilacqua says that Catholics should be concentrating on ridding the world of the nightmare of poverty and threats to human life and human rights, he believes that Catholics have to accept the reality that “because of original sin, warfare is going to exist” and that the U.S. has a right to fight for peace.

He hopes that Catholics will come to see peace not  merely as the absence of war but as the “tranquility of order in which human beings can fulfill their destiny as human beings.”

In order to do that, says Weigel, Catholics should view the just-war theory as a principle of statecraft—a means of establishing a rule of law for ordering relations among nations and solving disputes.

And in a still menacing world filled with unsavory terrorists and unscrupulous tyrants, Winters agrees, Catholics have to allow that the “use of force may be an indispensable instrument of justice” to defend against threats to the independence and liberty of peoples.

Pacifists such as Mulready argue that the U.S. Catholics should be fighting wars before they start. This can be done by challenging U.S. support for ruthless regimes around the world and by calling to account U.S. companies that make their fortunes from arming and outfitting countries for war.

Sullivan concurs: “We’ve got to reject the notion that we’re going to bring peace by spreading arms,” he says. “We’ve got to disarm the world.”

All sides in this freewheeling Catholic debate agree on one thing: that as members of the country’s largest religious denomination, Catholics have a religious and civic duty to keep talking about the morality of war.

It’s either that, Untener says, or “leave war to the generals,” a prospect that he finds frightful. “That’s neither good preaching nor good democracy,” he says.

“And look where it got us in the past: the generals are the ones that decided on bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Originally published in U.S. Catholic (May 1992)
© David Scott, 2009. All rights reserved.