Catholics and the Peace Movement

ABOUT CATHOLICS and the Peace movement there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Catholics are a noticeable presence in the Peace Movement. They are no longer on the fringe or regarded as ininpical and exotic converts to the cause. The bad news is that they have adopted, or discovered for themselves, some of the worst faults that are apparently endemic to large peace movements.

Their presence is beyond question. From high school students to elderly members of the hierarchy, from activists to theorists, they are involved. That this is something new in American Catholicism will be evident to all whose memories go back at least to the Vietnam war, when dramatic acts of protest by Catholics won wide attention, because they were dramatic but also because they were by Catholics. And if the Catholics were also clerics, so much more the surprise and consequent acclaim. The number of bishops who enlisted in the ranks of the antiwar movement could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

It’s easy to see why the entrance of Catholics into the antiwar movement evoked surprise. For most of our national life, American Catholics supported almost unquestioningly U. S. foreign policies. In times of war, they rallied. Furthermore, it was generally accepted that “the Catholic position” on most matters and certainly on questions ot war and peace was that enunciated by the bishops. And the position of the bishops was, when formally stated, placed within the context provided by the tradition of the just war. Except for Catholic pacifists — and that phrase was regarded by many as a contradiction in terms — Catholics who struggled with the moral issues of warfare did so with the terms provided by that tradition, a tradition that insists upon the application of reason to moral principles, one that, in fact, equates morality with right reason.

All this underwent a sea-change in the 60s. Vatican II spoke kindly of conscientious objectors, condemned the arms race and only tolerated the nuclear deterrent. Pacem in Terris seemed to speak of war in a new way, without overt reference to just-war principles. The U. S. entered a long and increasingly unpopular and divisive war. In their customary fashion the bishops refrained from speaking out on the war individually, preferring the collective voice. But that voice was weak and uncertain. The vacuum created by that lack of leadership was soon filled by those whose passionate conviction led them to strong condemnation of the war. Perhaps not surprisingly, pacifists were disproportionately represented among the early Catholic protestors. And, again not surprisingly, they did not resort to just-war terms in opposing the war. The weight of public opinion and, more slowly, ecclesial opinion came to support the positions that their moral insights had led them to much earlier.

A symbol of the changes that were taking place in how C aiholics approach questions ot war and peace is that during the Vietnam war the Catholic Association for International Peace largely organized by thoughtful analysts of the just-war school — died a quiet and relatively unmourned death, while lively “Justice and Peace” offices began to spring up around the country. Far from rendering almost automatic support to U. S. policies, particularly concerning warfare, those attached to these offices tended to question and oppose. And frequently they viewed the world political scene through lenses that allowed them to describe the U. S. as a prime disturber rather than protector of peace in the world.

What has been gained and what lost by Catholics during these years of upheaval? The gain. First, the freedom to dissent from U. S. policies hus been enlarged; such dissent no longer guarantees the charge of being unpatriotic. Second, the Catholic laity and clergy feel free to voice their own opinions without waiting for the bishops. Third, the bishops themselves feel tree to speak out individually, making public the wide disparity of views previously concealed by collective opinion. Fourth, all of this allows easier Catholic participation in debates on, tor example, nuclear disarmament, nuclear freeze and no first use of nuclear weapons, all issues ol serious concern today.

The loss. It need not and should not diminish our appreciation of the leadership, moral insights, energy and sacrifice of the Catholic protestors of the Vietnam war to say that the way in which moral/political principles were discussed and applied during that period was an intellectual disgrace. But such it was and such it continues today. The traditional Catholic doctrine of warfare insisted on the application of reason to moral difficulties; it asserted that policy issued from the diverse pressures of power and morality. That doctrine has been largely ignored or rejected, and nothing has been put in its place. Within the Catholic church the deterioration of that tradition has led to the revival of sectarianism, fundamentalism, the use of proof-texts, a morality of intentions, a rejection of political compromise and other assorted evils. All of these plague the debate on the nuclear issues of our time, and, contrary to past history. Catholics now make significant contributions to that plague.

Anyone who reads the assorted condemnations of our present politico-military situation will encounter, and should be able to identify, these evils. Examples: The sectarian approach is exemplified by those who speak as it the peace promised by Jesus (“Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give.”) can be attained through politics — or, better, by abolishing the measures demanded by politics. This readily translates into unilateral disarmament. A species of Fundamentalism is wonderfully encapsulated by the Bishop who said he couldn’t equate Jesus with the nuclear bomb. Of course not — nor with sword, rifle, pneumonia or an auto accident. Another bishop, utging us to support prophets such as the Berrigans who will move us “into an uncharted wasteland,” would have us reply on a morality ot intentions, for few, if any, would deny thai the intentions of the Berrigans are admirable. But many ot us take  more seriously than this bishop the consequence — of moving deliberately into uncharted wastelands. The application of reason to political matters is openly rejected by those who base their support of unilateral disarmament on faith , a conversion experience, a simple interpretation of the meaning of the cross today. And a recurrent heresy is currently embraced by those who correctly point out that we are all members of the human family and they proceed to say that we have no enemies, and can thercfore disarm. Such dark counsel in the light of the actions ol the USSR is dazzling.

Such responses to our present dire situation are positively harmful. They represent not a development but a departure from the best strums of our Catholic traditions. There are, of course, some people who continue to speak within that tradition. Gordon Zahn labors, as he has for years, to develop Catholic pacifism; Father J. Bryan Hehir writes with a firm grasp of the politico/moral bases of nuclear issues; Thomas Powers’ essays are always informed and releciive; William O’Brien continues to extend just-war principles to current events. What they and some lew other thoughtful spokesmen have in common is an appreciation of the nuclear issues, an understanding of politics and its limitations, and a recognition that the application of reason, calculation and judgment is necessary it we are to find our way out ot our seeming impasse. What they make clear is that we continue to need a development of our tradition not a desertion of it.

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


  • James Finn

    James Finn is author of Protest: Pacifism and Politics, a study of the Vietnam peace movement, and, when Crisis was originally published in 1982, he was editor of Freedom at Issue, the bimonthly journal of Freedom House.

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