Catholics Fighting & Resisting Wars

“However, as Christians we remain profoundly convinced that the final aim, worthy of humanity and of the human community, is the abolition of war. Therefore, we must always make efforts to build bridges that unite rather than walls that separate…”[1]

Pope Francis

War: Can we ever get away from it? With every newspaper, nightly newscast, and, thanks to modern technology, news updates on our smartphones, the media constantly berates Americans with images and videos of the extreme violence, aggression, destruction, and mortality of wars across the world and at home. We hear about so many wars during our childhood educations and into our adult lives, that we have a tendency to associate war with “two sides engaging in armed conflict”, but as modern technology continues to evolve, new and different forms of war begin to take shape. Cyberwar, information war, nuclear war, biological and chemical war are all forms of war that have recently developed as a result of new technologies made available to governments across the world. Regardless of the type of war, the Catholic Church has had a rather complicated relationship with the idea and ethics of war, and has always struggled defining its stance on war in general. In combination with the different observations I had of the “Catholic Resistance Movement” led by Daniel Berrigan and several pieces of literature, I will discuss the nature of Catholics’ relationship with the politics of war, and how their position on the matter may or may not have deviated from their contemporary views.

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Peace and War depicted in an ERLC article

When asked what Catholics thought of war, many of my peers did not hesitate to mention the phrase “Just War”. Growing up without a religious affiliation, I had never heard of “Just War” or the ideology behind it, and even now, after being baptized and confirmed Catholic only two years ago, I was never taught about the Catholic stance on war, especially not the theory of “Just War”. Per the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2302-2317, the “Just War Doctrine” is what constitutes the church’s dense of a nation against an aggressor. The Just War Doctrine was first enunciated by St. Augustine of Hippo, and further taught by Doctors of the Church such as St. Thomas Aquinas (Fun fact: St. Thomas Aquinas is my Saint name), and then formally embraced by the Magisterium[2]. As Pope Francis mentioned above, the Catholic Church states “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war”. However, as we know, sometimes war is just unavoidable in the quest for justice when justice is due. The Just War Doctrine clearly lays out certain conditions for which war is acceptable, and they all must be met and are as follows:

  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; there must be serious prospects of success;
  3. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” [CCC 2309].

The Church allows for war, and by no means condemns it if it is necessary, but there are certain actions which are forbidden, those that violate certain moral principles that the Church hold every layperson accountable for. The Church strives to avoid war as much as possible by treating the underlying causes, as “Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war” [CCC 2317].

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Just War violation depicted in Transcend article

Now that we have discussed the foundation of the “Just War” theory, let’s dive into how Catholic Americans have applied their stances on war to American society during war times. Before I discuss my observations on the life of Dan Berrigan and the role he played in the Catholic Resistance movement, let’s dive into a more generalized discussion of American Catholics and war between 1960 and 1980. The 1960s could be argued as the period of the most cultural upheaval and concentrated effort to change society in America. As Sidney Alhstrom, author of “The Traumatic Years: American Religion and Culture in the 60’s and 70’s” states, “one could justify the adjective, revolutionary. Never before in this country’s history have so many Americans expressed revolutionary intentions and actively participated in efforts to alter the shape of American civilization in almost every imaginable way…”[3]. At the same time however, the Catholic Church was experiencing some of its greatest backlash and challenges for its clashing views of war and social justice against those of mainstream America. More specifically, the issues that were raised by the Vietnam War stimulated an entirely new discussion of the issue of war and how to understand and define it in the Catholic community. As stated in “American Catholics and the Dilemma of War 1960-1980” by William Au, “In their views of American society these conflicting groups of Catholics revealed that they saw the issue of war to be part of a larger cultural issue concerning the type of society which is compatible with the Christian view of the human condition, and the degree to which their own society did or did not conform to this”[3]. American Catholics became incredibly divided during this era of American history, with their differing opinions on the morality and ethics of war driving them apart from each other, and from mainstream America. Their attention was then turned to the Church for confirmation of their beliefs, consequently pushing the Church into debates on war and peace for the next several decades.

One of the questions we strove to confront during seminar was “Has the issue of war always forced American Catholics to confront their place in American society?” Personally, I do think that every time the issue of war arises in American society, Catholics turn inwards towards themselves and towards the Church for guidance on whether or not they are supposed to support the war effort at hand. I do believe, however, that as time goes on, American Catholics behave differently from war to war and do not look at each war as the same before it. I think now more than ever in contemporary America, American Catholics base their views on war off of their own personal beliefs (which could stem from their support for their home country or their support for the church or their experiences with a military family) and are not afraid to share them with others. Regardless, with each coming war, American Catholics still turn to their Catholic foundation to determine if it checks their moral and ethical boxes before they support it because, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, Catholics have a tendency to make decisions in support of helping and healing Americans, and maximizing the preservation and growth of human beings’ lives. But even as William Au had mentioned, American Catholics often have to reevaluate their position in American society when it comes to the issue of war because often times, their views clash with those of mainstream America and have to force some Catholics to wonder to what degree Catholicism fits in American culture in respect to the issues of war and peace. And in turn, Americans have had a tendency to question Catholics about their place in this country when it comes to wars that American Catholics are fervently against. I do not believe this has always been the case throughout American history, but rather in recent decades, more Americans are becoming more vocal and expressive of their beliefs on not just war but anything that affects American society, and often times Catholics are confronted by such Americans about whether or not their beliefs belong in the collective, mainstream opinion of an occurring war.

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Daniel Berrigan during his arrest

Now, let’s get personal. Personal in the sense where I discuss a specific person and their beliefs and the actions he took to satisfy those beliefs in an era where war was tearing the country apart. Daniel Berrigan. This is a man whom I had never heard of before this week. And let me tell you, my life has been radically changed by learning about his. To boil him down, Daniel Berrigan “was an American Jesuit priest, anti-war activist, Christian pacifist, playwright, poet, and author”[4]. But he was much more than that. I attended several events regarding Dan Berrigan and the Catholic Resistance Movements, such as a film, an exhibit, and a symposium. I learned so much about these movements and the individuals involved, that it is almost impossible to formulate the words to describe it.

“But how shall we educate men to goodness, to a sense of one another, to a love of the truth? And more urgently, how shall we do this in a bad time?”[4]

Dan Berrigan

Dan Berrigan was a pivotal figure in the resistance against the Vietnam War. He paired up with his brother, Philip Berrigan, along with several other Catholic protestors to form a coalition against everything that the Vietnam War stood for. He, along with his brother, were essential in the foundation of two protest groups: The Baltimore Four and the Cantonsville Nine. The Baltimore Four consisted of Philip Berrigan, artist Tom Lewis, and protesters David Eberhardt and Rev. James L. Mengel III. Philip Berrigan was arrested in 1967 and sentenced to six years in prison for pouring blood on draft records as a part of the Baltimore Four. The Cantonsville Nine consisted of the Berrigan Brothers and seven other Catholic protestors, and their famous act of backlash was using homemade napalm to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of the draft board in Cantonsville, Maryland in 1968.

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The Cantonsville Nine depicted burning draft files, 1968

Dan Berrigan was also arrested and sentenced to three years in prison, was able to escape imprisonment by going to hiding. He was later apprehended by the FBI in 1970 at the home of William Stringfellow, one of Dan Berrigan’s best friends and theologian and fellow social activist. Dan’s actions were essentials in the shaping of tactics to battle the Vietnam War, moving many activists away from peaceful protests, to more acts of civil disobedience. The film and exhibit on the life of Dan Berrigan captured everything mentioned above and more, displaying Dan Berrigan in a light that exposed his beliefs and highlighted the efforts he had against the Vietnam War and fighting for what he, as Jesuit priest, believed in. Berrigan is a prime example of how American Catholics were not afraid to voice their beliefs on war, and even to go as far as to commit acts of civil disobedience, all in the name of fighting for the Catholic Church’s belief in “Just War”.

To bring my discussion of American Catholics and the politics of war to a close, I want to tie these ideas back to a previous discussion in one of my blog posts with this question: How does the issue of war and peace help us tackle the question of when Catholics became full citizens? It is important that we continue thinking about how all of these concepts relate, because they do. As mentioned, the issue of war has always forced both Americans and American Catholics, specifically, to reevaluate the position of Catholicism in American society in some form or another. So when we are defining what it means to be an American citizen, does that include following the mainstream American beliefs on issues like war? Because if that’s the case, then have American Catholics become “full citizens” at all yet? Until we uncover more about American Catholics and the issues they face regarding their beliefs, this question remains unanswered, but I promise, we will circle back to it in the near future.

[1] “Pope's Quotes: Abolition of War.” National Catholic Reporter, 30 Sept. 2016, www.ncronline.org/blogs/francis-chronicles/popes-quotes-abolition-war.

[2] “Just War in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Honoring Christopher Columbus, www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/just_war.htm.

[3 Au, William A. “American Catholics and the Dilemma of War 1960-1980.” U.S. Catholic Historian , vol. 4, no. 1, 1984, pp. 49–79.

[4 “Daniel Berrigan.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Sept. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Berrigan.

[5 “War.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Sept. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War#Types.

[6] “Catholic Teaching Concerning a Just War.” Catholicism.org, 7 Apr. 2017, catholicism.org/catholic-teaching-just-war.html.
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