Fr. John Hugo – Catholics and War (May 1943)

Fr. John Hugo

Catholics who regard it a duty to serve their country in the armed forces look askance at their co-religionists who have taken up the position of “conscientious objectors” to the war. Indeed it has become customary for many, even responsible writers and editors, to cast slurs on those who for conscience’s sake oppose uncompromisingly the monstrous evil of modern war. Because Catholics as a whole – so the argument runs – have failed to adopt conscientious objection as the characteristically Catholic response to war, therefore it must be wrong and un-catholic. 

That is the mode of argument fortunately not common among Catholic theologians. If it were, then we could acquiesce in any widespread abuse among Catholics simply because it is widespread: or we could dismiss any Christian ideal that is rarely realised in the lives of Catholics, as for example the Franciscan ideal of poverty, simply because it is rarely realised. By the same token, if votes determine truth, then we Catholics would have to adopt birth control and divorce as institutions characteristic of our age and genius.

Msgr. Fulton Sheen has said more than once that “right is right though nobody is right, and wrong is wrong though everyone is wrong.” Since when has Catholic theology adopted the method of deciding controversial issues by counting noses on the respective sides?

People, even Catholics, have been known to abandon ideals, not because the latter were wrong, but because they themselves shrank from the consequences of defending unpopular and unacceptable truths.

When in an entirely Catholic country, Henry VIII began to tamper with Christian marriage and scale down papal supremacy, he was opposed by just one Catholic layman, a handful of Carthusians, and one bishop.

It was urged against Thomas More, the one layman, that all the priests and bishops, with the exceptions mentioned, were on the opposite side of the quarrel, that the universities and the whole of Catholic England had accepted the king’s innovations, and that they could not all be wrong. Even More’s family and friends considered him odd, deluded, obstinate, and it did indeed seem inconceivable that everyone including priests and bishops should be wrong except this small group of men.

Yet the passage of four centuries, climaxed by a canonisation process, has shown that all of Catholic England was actually wrong, while only St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, the bishop, and the Carthusians were right.

More was a conscientious objector: that is, he objected to the infringement of the state upon certain sacred rights, although no one else could see this infringement. Incidentally, he was also a pacifist.

His case is parallel to the one we are considering; for the modern conscientious objector, while not denying the duty of obedience to the state, considers that the state today, in its declarations and conduct of war, is again trampling underfoot sacred human rights. Nor is the controversy decided against the conscientious objector simply because, as in More’s day, the mass of people prefer to go along with the all-powerful state.

Oddly, among Catholics there is no public discussion of the matter at all. There is absolutely no debate in the Catholic press over the most important moral and spiritual issue of the day. Catholics have left the matter entirely in the hands of officials with little or no Christianity, and they are apparently satisfied to accept the moral decisions of these rather dubious ethical authorities. Still, as soon as one begins to examine modern war in the light of conditions set down by theologians, doubts begin to arise in the mind. Only by suppressing discussion, or refraining from it, can a semblance of unanimity be obtained.

A person is required to obey his or her superiors and not to judge them. For this reason, it is concluded that the Catholic’s duty in war is also obedience and that he consequently has no choice when he is called to arms by lawful authority.

Certainly, the Christian is bound by obedience. Yet if the obedience demanded is such as to dispense or prevent him from forming his or her conscience aright, then it is the kind that goes with modern state-worship and it is not the obedience of Christianity. 

Christian obedience is itself a duty of conscience. Its obligation must be recognised by conscience and freely acted upon before it becomes meritorious. Its genuine expression demands a great refinement of conscience, and it is not to be confused with timidity, fear, servility or expedience.

Indeed, at first glance there is something suspicious about the universal appeal to obedience in an age which, as Pope Benedict XV pointed out of the causes of war, is chiefly characterised by a spirit of disobedience and rebellion. In any event, religious obedience does not exempt men and women from judging the world and the morality of their actions. Were it to suppress conscience and deprive them of inalienable rights, there would be truth in the contention that religion is an opiate. 

Furthermore, Christian obedience is circumscribed by certain definite limits. One of these is well known, namely, that we are obliged to obey in all things except sin. Hence subjects are not bound by the unjust laws of civil authority. Here is exactly the crux of the present matter: the Catholic cannot claim exemption from the just laws of legitimate authority. But he can without fault disobey unjust laws even when these are framed by lawful authority. In such a case he has a positive duty to disobey.

This is shown by the martyrs who, obedient enough to Caesar in all that pertained to him, accepted death rather than obey him where his ordinances conflicted with the laws of Almighty God. The dying words of St. Thomas More were, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

The duty that the Christian has to obey in the case of just laws is balanced by his or her duty to disobey in the case of unjust laws. If a Catholic considers a war unjust, he not only has the right to be a conscientious objector; he has a very serious duty to be one.

Especially when nations are not Christian there is a need for great care in scrutinising their ordinances. Obviously, too, the standard of judgement should be Christian. Surely then there is a grave necessity for vigilance in our country, where thought is dominated by neo-paganism and political practice is deeply infected by liberalism, a system that was formally condemned by the Holy See long before its condemnation of Nazism.

There are other important limitations to be attached to obedience. As St. Thomas Aquinas observes in his Summa Theologicae one is not obliged to obey a superior in matters over which the latter has no authority. Accordingly, says the saint, no person is bound to obey a human superior in those things which pertain to the interior movements of the will. In such matters obedience is only due to God.

Yet even when it is granted that Catholics in certain circumstances may refuse obedience to civil authorities, it is nevertheless urged by opponents of conscientious objection that this right cannot be exercised in the present situation because of public statements made by the bishops concerning the war.

These statements, it is alleged, should serve as a guide to Catholics for forming their consciences; and since many bishops have expressed approval of Allied war aims and their belief in the justice of World War II, the conscientious objector should lay aside scruples and do as he or she is told. Once these statements are made public, it is said, there is no further grounds for believing that the war is unjust. 

This would be true if the bishops, in setting forth their views, were acting in virtue of the infallibility promised by Christ to His Church. But they clearly are not, and therefore, although their statements should be given the attention they deserve by reason of the dignity and authority of their writers, still they cannot be taken as a final resolution of the problem of conscience. 

If the bishops were to lay down some definite doctrinal pronouncements or some precise legislation binding in conscience, the problem would be greatly simplified for Catholics. But they have not done so; their statements are expressions of their own view; and many bishops have not thought fit to make public statements on the war at all.

Of course it is extremely doubtful whether it falls within the scope of episcopal authority to make final doctrinal pronouncements or set up coercive legislation in this matter. As human authority cannot legislate for consciences, so it is the opinion of the best theologians, including St. Thomas, that even ecclesiastical law cannot directly enter the sacred precincts of conscience and compel the will.

Some Catholic writers, for example Gerald Vann, O.P., in his Morality and War, deny that even the Holy See can make a decision as to the justice of a particular war. But this much is certain: such a decision can never be made by any authority less than the Holy See or the bishops in conjunction with that See. No doubt all Catholics would welcome a final, authoritative answer to these difficulties; but as long as it does not come, they are left to make their own decisions. 

A Catholic therefore, convinced by private study of the injustice of this war, can dissent from the views expressed by the bishops in their public statements without offending against obedience or showing any want of the respect and reverence due to episcopal authority. 

Enlightened by the lessons of history as well as by his study of religion, he is simply recognising in practice the doctrine of limited episcopal authority and jurisdiction. As Jacques Maritain writes in The Things That Are Not Caesar’s, “a number of prelates do not constitute the church and do not bind the Church, as the judges of Rouen have clearly proved.” The prelates here referred to are the French and English bishops who condemned Joan of Arc for heresy and witchcraft. Within a lifetime their decision was reversed by the Holy See, and in due course she was canonised by the same infallible authority. 

There are four grounds upon which a Catholic may be a conscientious objector:

Firstly, he may regard conscription as immoral, since it deprives people of their right to follow a vocation, forces them into a life of celibacy for which they have no aptitude or call, and therefore interferes with, and greatly injures, Christian marriage and Christian family life.

Secondly, he may be convinced that all the conditions necessary for a just war are not verified in the present case, In this event it is his duty to be a conscientious objector. 

Third, he may subscribe to the opinion held by a number of theologians that a just war is in practice impossible under modern circumstances. This is so, not only because of the use of unjust means, such as lying propaganda, chemical warfare, and the murder of civilians. It is also and mainly so because war can be justified only when there is no international society to adjust differences among nations. Since there is such an international society today, or at least all the necessary means for forming one, there can be no need or justification for war. These same theologians are the ones who deny, or gravely question the possibility of a genuine “war of defence” in modern circumstances. A Catholic convinced of the truth of these views might be a conscientious objector on the basis of them.

Finally, a Catholic may oppose war on the grounds that it is not Christ’s way and that he chooses to follow the higher way that Christ has given us. The conscientious objector need not be troubled by the slurs of his or her co-religionist or the assertion that this position is not truly Catholic. He should not be moved by the falsehood that Catholics cannot be pacifists. Pacifist means peacemaker. Now the greatest of all peacemakers was Christ himself – who reconciled humanity to God and broke down the walls of division that had once estranged people. Moreover, the Saviour makes pacifism one of the points of His basic code contained in the beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

One wonders, therefore, by what authority certain Catholics would argue that pacifists, or peacemakers, are not legitimate followers of Christ. It is also difficult to understand how a Catholic can say, as many do, that the Church is opposed to pacifism and even condemns it. Precisely where might one find such a condemnation?

It is true that certain Catholics condemn pacifism, but they are not the Church. Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia: Where the Holy See takes her stand, there is the position of the Church. The Pope is the authentic voice of the Church. And in the modern world, the greatest, the most uncompromising, the most insistent of all pacifists are the occupants of the See of St. Peter.

“I bless only peace,” said Pope Pius X to the Austrian ambassador who sought for a blessing on the imperial arms and this statement admirably sums up the whole position of the modern papacy. Caught in the awful storm of war, they nevertheless talk only of peace, and refuse to say one word that would encourage war, whatever may be the pretended cause. 

Although both sides try to force the Pope’s words to favour their own position, none of the papal statements can be forced to imply an approval of war. When war is glorified as the means of saving democracy, or liberty, or Christianity, they who have the first duty of defending Christianity speak of the deeds which patriots applaud as “murder,” “slaughter,” “havoc,” and “destruction.”

Everyone knows of the popes’ neutrality. But it is too often overlooked that there is something in their neutrality besides the unwillingness to favor one side rather than the other. There is the steadfast, heroic refusal to speak a syllable that might be construed as approval of war.

The Catholic Worker (May 1943)