The Christian Soldier

Is the phrase, “Christian soldier,” a contradiction in terms? Does Christ’s message of peace, so prominently featured and so eloquently expressed in the Gospel, rule out resort to arms under any circumstances?

To both questions I answer a resounding “No,” even though as a combat veteran I am possibly more dedicated to the cause of peace than any pacifist or anti-nuclear, activist could be.

In my eyes there is a remarkable link between the sincere pacifist and the Christian soldier: Both ideals derive from negative considerations. Where the pacifist refuses to fight so that he will not kill or inflict hurt, the Christian soldier fights so that his friends or his ideals will not be killed or destroyed.

Who is to say that one choice is more honorable, more virtuous than the other? To politicize the message of Christ is to desecrate both Him and His Gospel. Just as His divine love embraces all, so it is clear that there is room in His fold for both soldiers and pacifists.

In The Catholic Catechism, Father John Hardon, S.J., denies that pacifism is a Gospel mandate. While war would be unacceptable in a world wholly governed by Christian principles, in the secularized world in which we live “force is sometimes necessary to maintain the authority of the law…”

Hardon also refutes the notion that a once-pacifist Church developed into one upholding a just war theology. The monastic life, with its vow of celibacy, is supposedly the “perfect” life of allegiance to God, he says, but it is directed only to those especially called to it. If all men followed the celibate ideal, there would be no more humankind. Likewise, pacifism is an ideal; if all men but one were to pursue the pacifist ideal, the result could be tyranny.

The magisterium of the Catholic Church centuries ago enunciated the four principles of a “just” war. Today, with the development of fearsomely destructive nuclear and chemical weapons, the focus is on the last of the four principles: that to be just a war must be waged by proper means. It is virtually certain that no nuclear war could pass this test.

On both sides of the question there lurk wolves in sheep’s clothing. Some who call themselves pacifists (but are really for peace at any price) portray members of the military as wanton, cold-blooded killers. And some pro-military jingoists tar true pacifists with the brush of cowardice. While there are so-called “soldiers” who exult in destruction, and while there are so-called “pacifists” motivated only by selfish concern for their own skins, both types are aberrant from the norm.

True pacifists cherish convictions that are both honorable and brave; soldiers I have known — including myself — are dedicated about equally to the goals of defending their ideals and emerging alive from the conflict.

I have served, with honor if not distinction, in this country’s armed forces. A member of a bomber air crew during World War II, I spent 15 months in a German prison camp after being shot down over Hitler’s Festung Europa.

From this experience has sprung a deeply-held, two-pronged belief: (1) that no one can abhor war more, or for better reason, than a combat veteran; and yet (2) that one who, by force of arms, defends a cause that has passed the test of a prayerful, informed conscience is performing a virtuous act as a member of an honorable profession.

It is as a believer and patriot that I find the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral on War and Peace wrongheaded on two counts: (1) It portrays physical death, in war, as the ultimate evil, while all these years I have believed that the Founder of our faith not only taught that sin was the greatest evil but died to make that lesson clear; and (2) while casually accepting (but energetically exercising) the rights of free speech, religious practice, and liberty in general, the bishops nowhere acknowledge that servicemen throughout American history have fought and sometimes died to ensure the preservation of these very rights. It irritates me that the bishops do not express even a perfunctory kind of gratitude.

To relieve this irritation, I recently asked a priest-acquaintance what was the likely fate of those Catholics who years ago had become “soldiers of Christ” in the Sacrament of Confirmation? Should they now consider themselves dishonorably discharged? Or merely demobilized?

My friend was not amused. He grumbled sourly that they had probably been banished to guarding those legions of Catholics who had eaten meat on Friday, before the ban was lifted.


  • Charles W. McCollester

    Charles W. McCollester was coordinator of analytical studies at Notre Dame University.

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