by Joseph J. Fahey
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
This essay briefly explores the history of Catholic ethics on war and peace. It then discusses Catholic social teaching regarding nuclear weapons, and the movement from conditional acceptance to the position of the unacceptability of even possessing nuclear weapons because they are intrinsically evil. The essay concludes with a discussion of the meaning of this development for policy makers and those who work in the nuclear weapons field as well as for average Catholics.
The earliest Christians embraced pacifism in response to the Sermon on the Mount. Christians rejected bloodshed whether it be capital punishment, gladiatorial contests, and military service. They were called to the higher ministry of reconciliation and the law of talion of old – an eye for an eye – was replaced by the call to love even our enemies. This grand law of love characterized Christian life in the early centuries when Christians were persecuted by Roman authorities for their fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus. When Roman soldiers converted to Christianity, they rejected bloodshed and hatred of enemies embracing instead active love for all. St. Martin of Tours (316-397 CE) was representative when he stated, “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier, let me now serve Christ…I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight” (see Fahey, 2018; 2005).
The conscientious witness of the early Christians to renounce bloodshed and service in military forces has continued down to our own time. This was true even when some in the Church embraced the Just War theory (fifth century) and even engaged in the savage bloodshed of the Crusaders and later the Conquistadors (eleventh century). While pacifism retreated to monastic and clerical life after the fifth century there were, nevertheless., many examples of individuals and small groups who maintained the peacemaking witness of the early Christians. We also do well to remember that the embrace of the Just War was done reluctantly and as late as 1000 CE various Penetentials and The Peace of God and The Truce of God severely restricted weapons in war, the number of those who could be killed in war, and the time of year when fighting to could take place. Even during the brutal Crusades there were peace movements that opposed bloodshed. The Third Order of St. Francis which exempted lay people from military service is but one example of Medieval peace movements. Hence, while the term “conscientious objection” is of recent origin, the obligation to conscientiously observe severe restrictions on war and to opt instead for nonviolent alternatives is quite old in Christian history (see Fahey 2018; 2005).
While members of the Historic Peace Churches—Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers—have traditionally been exempt from military service, the idea that Roman Catholics could refuse military service with the approval of ecclesiastical authorities occurs only after World War II. During WWI, for example, Ben Salmon an American Catholic war resister opposed the war on the Church’s teaching on Just War and was imprisoned and sentenced to death for his stand. He sought support from clergy but received none. The few Catholics who resisted WWI simply did so without clerical or hierarchical support. During WWII Catholics in many warring countries were urged on by the hierarchy in their native land to serve in the military. There were Catholic conscientious objectors but few received any official support and, as in the case of Blessed Franz Jaegestatter in Austria, his priest and bishop refused to support him in his refusal to serve in the Nazi army. (I interviewed some WWII Catholic COs and almost all told me no priest would support them.)…