The Christian Soldier

We often construe the issue of Christian response to violence in terms of two groups, those who refuse to bear arms and those who are willing to undertake the task of soldiering. We then move to a determination of which stance is correct by assessing each position in terms of its fidelity to the spirit of the Gospel and the realities of human existence. Rather than discussing the issue in this way, let me begin by first noting that Catholic Christianity has never considered being a Christian and a soldier antithetical tasks. While Catholicism can claim notable sons and daughters who were and are strict pacifists, the Catholic tradition has never condemned war outright; instead, its emphasis has been on fostering morally discriminate judgments about war so that war might be restrained and limited. The just war doctrine is meant to counsel us in the direction of restraining recourse to war and limiting it if and when it breaks out. I would like to explore the implications of the just war teaching for those in the military profession, while quickly noting that they are by no means the only moral agents to whom just war teaching is addressed.

As other Church documents in the 20th century have noted, the recent Pastoral Letter of the American bishops affirms the right of the nation to defend itself against aggression. The final draft of the Pastoral reaffirms the centrality of just war teaching over the pacifist position and calls upon political leaders, citizens, and military personnel to consider carefully the several criteria for “justifiable” war. The Bishops went further than simply recommending just war analysis: they also subjected American nuclear strategy to just war principles and more than tentatively concluded that much of that strategy was morally wrong. My point here is not to discuss the Pastoral’s conclusions but to note that it is the latest instance of appeal to just war teaching that is more elaborate and rigorous than ever before. This rigor of the just war application is certain to be felt by both Catholic citizens (ranging from those who support military policy to those earning their livelihood in defense industries) and those in military uniform.

Like all moral teaching, just war doctrine has been interpreted by each age of Christians in light of their historical realities. In the early modern period commentators on the just war doctrine confined moral responsibility for applying its criteria to political authorities and military planners, urging them to consider the justness of the cause and rightness of the intent and to put limits on their strategies which might jeopardize non-combatants or threatened to wreak greater evil than war expects to remedy. Since these were judgments belonging to political and military leaders, citizen and foot soldier had little moral role to play. Our century has witnessed the dawning recognition of greater moral responsibility for a wider range of actors in the drama — nay, tragedy — of war. We have witnessed spiraling evil in war-time precisely because the direction of deeds of war were considered beyond the purview of the ordinary consciences of citizens and soldiers. Contemporary Catholic teaching on the morality of war is now addressed to all men and women of good will at all levels of political and military institutions. In 1980 the American bishops wrote that “the state’s decision to use force should always be scrutinized by citizens asked to support that decision or to participate in war.” (“Statement on Registration and Conscription for Military Service.”)

Having noted this development in just war application, I should also note that some contemporary Catholics have resisted interpretations of just war teaching which construe moral accountability broadly. In the debates beginning in the late 1960s about selective conscientious objection these Catholics doubted that individuals should be given the right to form their own moral judgments on particular wars by applying just war criteria. These Catholics viewed war- making as an “ethico-political” undertaking subject to general moral review but nonetheless stemming from political judgments made by political leaders and, through the political processes and hence not subject to individual moral determinations. The truth that their reasoning seeks to preserve is that the common good is better known and served by the community than by individuals. What they have either not seen or been unwilling to concede is that the just war teaching as a moral teaching is meant to inform the consciences of all Christians rather than having only an indirect impact on the institution of war.

It would be a new distortion to claim that the just war teaching is primarily intended to burden the consciences of men and women in military uniforms. But since we are focusing on Christian soldiers, what does the teaching say to them? First, it is a reminder that there are limits of justifiable warfare and that discerning what they are is their primary moral responsibility. Second, the just war theory functions to remind them that there is a point at which they must stop performing the task of soldiering — and that means being prepared to surrender their arms rather than do what may not be done in war. If the teaching is functioning for Christians in the military it will help them keep straight that they are sworn to protect the innocent and not licensed to kill in-discriminately. For Christian soldiers the highest virtue cannot be obedience to the orders of one’s supervisors. In addition, the officer class has a moral obligation toward their subordinates insofar as they may not withhold information that has the effect of causing soldiers to violate the jus in bello criteria for a just war by following orders.

In their Pastoral Letter the American bishops did not intend to indict or even make uneasy the consciences of Catholics serving in the military profession. Instead, they only reminded all Catholics of the need to form their consciences. The bishops are right to refrain from being so prescriptive as to be coercive. Still, they have not acknowledged the moral burden which accompanies military service for those who take seriously the just war teaching of the Church. When they do take that moral teaching seriously other burdens will follow, for there is then introduced a permanent tension between the political-military institutions asking for the fullness of citizen and soldier loyalty on the one hand, and the degree of loyalty such Christians can give, on the other hand. That tension and its burden is inevitable for all Christians living in a nation-state which quickly inflates the object of its warrant for defense from innocent persons and the common good to increasingly vague goods like “civilization” and “our way of life.”

What the bishops have said about the formation of conscience may well strike us as extraordinarily burdensome because individuals are depicted as quite solitary in their pursuit of integrity. Even though the bishops call upon the Church to offer support to those in military and defense-related positions, it is still largely the individual who must act alone. What the bishops have failed to articulate is an essential point in this discussion of just war teaching and the formation of conscience. That is, the just war teaching is rooted in a community which is committed to living non-violently because it trusts in the superior power of God rather than armaments. Jesus laid claim to that power; we the community of his followers interpret his life, death, and resurrection in terms of the defeat of all lesser powers by the power of God. The form of Jesus’ disarming of power was a life of self-sacrifice and even death without resistance. It is this nonviolent story which has left its indelible mark of nonviolence on his Church. Even when the Church gave limited approval of war, it has never forgotten the sign of the Cross. When it articulates a moral teaching about war it must do so with the awareness that it offers its members an alternative self and communal identity. It is insufficient for the Church to be a voice offering guidance to lonely Christian individuals who are increasingly burdened by their sense of being out of synch with the aspirations of the nation-state in which they are citizens and soldiers. The Church must strive to become a community assisting consciences and providing tangible support for those who struggle to live in accordance with God’s power as manifest in Jesus. Until the Church can envision itself as an alternative polity offering both identity and support to its members, the Church’s teachings on war may indeed be too burdensome.


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