Extreme pacifism contradicts the Church
Right or Wrong?
"The Real Terrorists Are in the White House." This sign, carried by a University of Michigan freshman, captures the spirit of one aspect of the vocal and growing anti-war movement. Such protests imply a moral equivalence between American foreign policy and the Sept. 11 attacks, implicitly viewing the latter as retribution for the former. Other anti-war activities, including peace vigils at Notre Dame, focus on prayer and a rejection of all violence.
"For those of us," said one Notre Dame participant, "who understand that peace is in no way related to violence ... [y]ou just can't be silent ... not as Christians, not as human beings."
Last month this column examined the just war concept which recognizes a limited right of the state to engage in war for defense of the common good. A separate question, raised by the anti-war protest, is whether a Catholic is obliged in conscience to serve in such a war. Or is a Catholic obliged not to serve? This controversy is likely to continue. So let us note four points made by the Catechism:
First: "As long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed" (No. 2308). Such defense must be justified by the conditions for a "just war." "The evaluation of these conditions ... belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good" (No. 2309).
Second: Citizens are obliged to support a just war. "Public authorities in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense" (No. 2310).
Third: "Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are ... obliged to serve the ... community in some other way" (No. 2311).
Fourth : "Those who renounce violence ... and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear ... witness to the ... physical and moral risks of recourse to violence" (No. 2306).
Pacifism is universal or selective. The universal pacifist refuses to take part in any and all wars because he denies that war can ever be justified in defense of the common good. A Catholic is clearly not obliged to be a universal pacifist. Nor is universal pacifism, which denies the right of the state ever to use force in defense, consistent with the teaching of the Church.
The selective pacifist, on the other hand, refuses to take part, not in any and all wars, but only in a particular war he regards as unjust. The law of the United States allows exemption from military service only for universal pacifists and not for selective pacifists. The Catechism urges, but does not require, exemption for all conscientious objectors (No. 2311). It is difficult, however, to see how an exemption for selective objectors could be administered without inviting fraudulent evasion.
It involves no reflection on the sincerity of universal pacifists to deny any claim of objective moral superiority for their position. One can well "bear witness to evangelical charity" by renouncing force in defending himself. The universal pacifist, however, denies that force can ever be used in defense of the common good. He would refuse to defend not only himself but others, and he would deny to his fellow citizens their right to have the state provide what the Catechism calls "legitimate defense by military force" (No. 2309). This sort of universal pacifism was aptly described by General Douglas MacArthur as "a base creed."
Selective pacifism, on the other hand, is not only consistent with, but required by, the teaching of the Church. We all should be selective pacifists, insisting, with prudence, that any war — or any other act of the state — is subject to the higher standard of the natural law and the law of God. A strong presumption of validity attaches to the decisions and acts of those entrusted with the care of the common good. But that presumption is not conclusive.
Patriotism is a virtue. And the present war on terrorism clearly satisfies the conditions of a just war. "Our government," said Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua in his Oct. 16 letter to President Bush, "has the right and the duty to defend its people against this modern plague upon mankind."
The conduct of that, or any, war, however, is subject to the principles of proportionality and discrimination. The latter forbids intentional attacks on innocent civilians. In this and in other respects the right of the state to wage war is never unlimited. Nevertheless, the exercise of that limited right can be, as in this case, a high duty of the state.
Professor Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Tuesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, November 6, 2001