Monday, September 15, 2008

Must Catholics Embrace Pacifism?

Blessed be the LORD, my rock,who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle...

Psalm 144:1

My last post on guns and spree killers prompted a comment -- from a reader who assumed the name of a World War II British fighter plane -- that included the following line:
I also find it hillarious that the "arm everyone" argument is posited on a Catholic blog. Somehow, I think Jesus would be against everyone being potentially lethal towards each other.
It is alleged, then, that my position on an armed populace is inconsistent with my Catholic Faith. So the question becomes: does the Catholic Church require her children to embrace pacifism? Does the Church, always and everywhere, and in all circumstances, condemn the use of force, and the instruments of force, and those who use force? Does the Church require us as individuals unilaterally to disarm in a dangerous world? If I had time, I could lay out a philosophical case, citing to Scripture and the Fathers and other authorities, appealing for help in such an undertaking to friends who are more learned, and whose minds are far less cluttered than mine.

But, being cluttered in mind, and burdened by my various quirks and interests, I thought first about those whom the Church venerates, objects of veneration being clues to the character of a person or an institution. There are in fact many saints who, for example, were soldiers: Ignatius of Loyola; Martin of Tours; and George, around whom many legends have sprung. Some of these saints gave up soldiering; Martin of Tours, who was a Roman officer in a ceremonial unit, actually refused to fight on religious grounds and was imprisoned for cowardice. But there are other saints who, while Christians, took up soldiering, or continued to soldier while being Christians, or wielded deadly force on some occasion or other, or who encouraged and even led combatants, even though they themselves may not have taken up arms. That the Church should encourage the veneration of such as these would seem to (a) rule out that their acts of violence -- never, by the way, wanton or unlawful -- made them sinners in the eyes of the Church, and (b) indicate that the Catholic position on the use of even lethal force is not quite as imagined. Witness:

St. Michael the Archangel: The prince of the heavenly host, who, upon the rebellion of the evil angels, drove them and Satan out of Heaven. St. Michael is venerated as the patron of policemen and soldiers; he is depicted wearing armor, bearing a sword and standing on the devil's head.

St. Maurice (?-c.287): soldier in the Roman army from Upper Egypt; member of a legion composed entirely of Christians. The entire legion was massacred for refusing -- NOT to fight -- but to offer sacrifices to idols. Canonized before the procedures and investigations instituted by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

St. Agathus of Byzantium (?-c. 303): centurion in the imperial Roman Army, stationed in Thrace. He was martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian.

St. Louis IX of France (1214-1270): King of France, the son of Louis XIII and Blanche of Castille. Devoutly Christian, he instituted numerous legal and judicial reforms, built leper hospitals and aided the mendicant orders. He led two Crusades and died during the second one. He was canonized in 1297.

St. Joan of Arc (1412-1431): in obedience to visions from heaven, in which she was ordered to find the true King of France and help him to regain his throne, this uneducated peasant girl took up arms against England and did exactly that, personally leading armies and suffering serious wounds. The Bishop of Beauvais, an English sympathizer, had her tried (in an ecclesiastical court) and burned at the stake (by the secular authorities) for heresy. Her eloquence and wisdom under withering cross-examination was remarkable. In 1454, she was re-tried and acquitted. She was canonized in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV.

St. John of Capistrano (1386-1456): Franciscan priest and miracle worker. John preached Crusade against the Turks after the fall of Constantinople, and, at the behest of Pope Callistus II, he led the Christian army of 70,000 to victory at the age of 70. He died in the field in October of 1456. Pope Alexander VIII canonized him in 1690.

St. Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1619): Franciscan Capuchin friar, military chaplain. In 1601, Lawrence rallied the German princes against the superior Turkish foe and led the army into battle, carrying no weapon but a crucifix. The Turks lost. He was canonized in 1881 by Pope Leo XIII, and named a Doctor of the Church by Bl. Pope John XXIII in 1959.

And then my personal favorite:

St. Gabriel Possenti (1838-1862): Passionist monk who died at age 24 of tuberculosis. When a band of marauding soldiers arrived in the town of Isola in Italy, Gabriel received permission to go to the aid of the villagers. Facing down a brigand who had seized a young girl, Gabriel seized the man's pistol, pointed it at him, and ordered him to let the girl go. When another soldier came up, Gabriel ordered him to hand over his pistol, which he took in his other hand. When their loot-laden companions approached, thinking a monk would not even know how to fire a gun, Gabriel took dead aim at a running lizard, and shot it. Result: the soldiers laid down their loot, put out the fires they had started, and split. Gabriel was canonized in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV.

And as a point of interest, of the four American military chaplains who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor between World War II and Vietnam, 100% of these were Catholic priests -- and one has pending a cause for sainthood. True, military chaplains are not ordinary fighting men; but if it is true that, by being commissioned military officers and providing spiritual comfort to soldiers in the field, they are aiding and abetting that which is unqualifiedly sinful in the eyes of the Church, then one has to ask (a) why the priests themselves would bother to distinguish themselves in such service; and (b) why the Church would even permit them to be there, let alone (c) entertain a cause for sainthood among them.

I grant that this is not an erudite, learned discourse based on Holy Scripture or the Church Fathers. But it should at least serve to illustrate the doubtfulness of the proposition that my position on firearms is inconsistent with my Faith.

P.S. The stained glass window pictured above, showing the Blessed Mother and Infant Jesus surrounded by American paratroopers, is from the Catholic church in Sainte-Mère-Église, Normandy, France.

1 comment:

  1. If Jesus were a real pacifist, how could He have triumphed over the Cross, as we just celebrated? Putting sin and death to death is a violent act, as far as I'm concerned.

    Next week we'll talk about how Jesus believes that it's better spiritually for everyone to be poor.