Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On Catholicism and Pacifism

Editor's Note: This was initially a piece I submitted to another website, but it was declined. I have decided to post it here because I think a conversation on this topic is interesting and worth while. I obviously submit to the Pope and the Catechism on this issue, however, I believe the idea of pacifism within our Catholic history needs to be considered. 

The recent events in Syria, both the use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians including children and the response of the United States with missiles launched at a Syrian government airbase that killed six, have once again brought the conversation about “just war” to the forefront of the Catholic internet. 

Upon seeing the images coming from Syria, I’m sure most of us felt as Cardinal DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, felt when he said the attacks “shocked the soul”. In the same statement, however, DiNardo reminded us all of the recent words of Pope Francis: “Please, silence the weapons, put an end to the violence! No more war! No more destruction! May humanitarian laws be respected, may the people who need humanitarian assistance be cared for and may the desired peace be attained through dialogue and reconciliation.”

When we see such disgusting atrocities we are seemingly united by our human nature wanting to respond and retaliate, to protect those being attacked from the unspeakable evils they have faced.

And yet, at the same time, something seems to tug at our conscience, deep down in the depths of the soul, pointing to the realization that retaliation may not be the best way forward. 

In times like these, Catholics rightfully point to the longstanding tradition in the Church of “just war theory”. The roots of this idea in the Catholic tradition come from St. Augustine, and was eventually spelled out in detail by St. Thomas Aquinas. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the conditions that must be met for a war to be just based on this theory in paragraph 2309:

1. The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain
2. All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective
3. There must be serious prospects of success
4. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

While we hear about this tradition of “just war theory”, we are unfortunately less frequently taught the great history and tradition of pacifism in the Catholic faith.

It is hard to consider and see a military retaliation without the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew immediately coming to mind:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

In addition, just two paragraphs before the Catechism lays out the conditions for a just war, it gives us this:

“The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.”
Indeed, the tradition of Pacifism within the Catholic Church goes back to the very beginning. There are numerous example of Church fathers standing up against war:

From St. Hippolytus of Rome: “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.”

to St. Cyprian: “Consider the roads blocked up by robbers, the seas beset with pirates, wars scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale.”

The tradition of pacifism within Catholicism continued on from that point, inspired primarily by the Sermon on the Mount, and has included some true greats of our faith. 

Some names that come to mind are St. Francis of Assisi (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”), St. Basil The Great (“Nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker.”), St. Martin of Tours (“I am a soldier of Christ. To fight is not permissible for me.”), and St. Maximilian The Martyr (“My army is the army of God, and I cannot fight for this world…. You can cut off my head, but I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.”), 

Father George Zabelka is a more contemporary example. He was a Catholic air force chaplain who blessed those who would go on to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. After leaving the military, he began to get involved in the non-violence movement and saw the idea of war incompatible for the teaching of Jesus: "There is no way to conduct war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus ... The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching of Jesus.”

And, of course, we cannot speak of Catholicism and Pacifism without mentioning Dorothy Day. Long known for her protesting of war and the injustices that lead to war, Dorothy allowed her life to be completely transformed by the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. 

In 1941, she wrote in a letter to all the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality:

“Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making weapons... We will try daily, hourly, to pray for an end to the war. Let us add that unless we combine this prayer with almsgiving, in giving to the least of God’s children, and fasting in order that we may help feed the hungry, and penance in recognition of our share in the guilty, our prayer may become empty words.”

While the discussion around just war and the idea of pacifism will surely continue on in Catholic circles for generations to come just as it has for generations before, my hope is that the tradition of pacifism in the Church will be presented with just as much weight as the tradition of the “just war theory”. 

My assertion would be that the Sermon on the Mount demands it.

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