Catholics have always been forthright in the defense of human life -- in certain specific areas. Thus, we have consistently opposed the deliberate taking of life by abortion or euthanasia, and we have generally resisted those practices which tend to restrict the possibilities of life, such as direct sterilization or contraception. Until the last decade, there was very little debate among Catholics about any of these issues.
Many Catholics, however, have at the same time been ambivalent about the destruction of human life in war. On the one hand, they knew that killing is a terrible thing, something that could not possibly please God. On the other hand, they had been taught from catechism days that there are at least three instances where killing is allowable: just war, capital punishment, and self-defense. There has been some debate now about the range of legitimacy for the first two exceptions.
Catholic ambivalence about the preservation of human life was encapsulated in a cynical witticism that gained wide circulation a couple of years ago when the birth control and Vietnam debates seemed to converge: If the United States had dropped contraceptives rather than atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, there would have been a storm of moral protest from the ecclesiastical leadership and from Catholics generally.
I do not endorse the cynicism of the comment, nor do I include it here in order to insure its continued circulation. Justifiably or not, the statement rings true for many people, and it happens to be useful in illustrating the point of this week's essay.
In this age of profound anxiety brought about by full-scale hostilities, terrorism, and all kinds of military and diplomatic provocations, it is of the highest importance that any residual Catholic ambivalence about war be dispelled. In this regard, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is exceedingly helpful.
Following the lead of such public statements as Pope John XXIII's Pacem in Terris ("Therefore, in an age such as ours which prides itself on its atomic energy it is contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore rights which have been violated"-para. 127) and Pope Paul VI's address before the United Nations in October, 1965 ("Never again war!"), the Second Vatican Council condemned the arms race (n. 81-82), the notion that "all's fair in war" (n. 79), indiscriminate destruction of cities and property (n. 80), and blind obedience on the part of military personnel (n. 79).
While it did not call for unilateral, unsupervised disarmament, the council did reject the commonly-held view that a large weapons stockpile is a necessary deterrent to war. The council argued that the so-called balance of arms tends to exacerbate rather than eliminate the causes of war. "Therefore, it must be said again: the arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which injures the poor to an intolerable degree" (n. 81).
How does the arms race injure the poor? By diverting enormous sums of money and resources from discovering "an adequate remedy for the multiple miseries afflicting the whole modern world" (n. 81).
War will disappear only when we eradicate the causes of dissension among men. Wars thrive on these, and especially on injustice. "Many of these causes stem from excessive economic inequalities and from excessive slowness in applying the needed remedies. Other causes spring from a quest for power and from contempt for personal rights. If we are looking for deeper explanations, we can find them in human jealousy, distrust, pride, and other egotistic passions" (n. 83).
The council singles out for special praise those people who choose to follow the path of nonviolence (n. 78) and it urges the various governments to protect the rights of conscientious objectors (n. 79). It recognizes all the while that the major challenge facing both Church and State is the task of education, of reshaping public opinion in support of the principles of justice and freedom (n. 82).
The document calls upon all Christians to collaborate in every possible way in those organizations and movements dedicated to finding the path to peace. It praises those Christians, young people in particular, who volunteer their services to help other men and nations and thereby alleviate the sufferings of the modern age. "As was the ancient custom in the Church, (Christians) should meet this obligation out of the substance of their goods, and not only out of what is superfluous" (n. 88).
In the midst of this time of violence and dislocation, the Church must stand forth as a spokesman, a witness, and an effective instrument of God's reign among men. It must be a community which really believes that the world can become his Kingdom because of what he has already manifested and accomplished in Jesus, who is the Lord of all history.
Christian faith requires that we make our own the vision of Isaiah: "And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (2:4).