What If I Don’t Want to Fight? Catholics and Conscientious Objection

By Sr. Jeanne Christensen, RSM 

NOTE:  This article first appeared in the December 16, 2001 edition of the Peace & Justice Newsletter printed in the Catholic KEY, newspaper published by the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.  Sadly, five years later the U.S. is still locked in an unjustified war and the issue of reinstating the draft has once again been raised. 

One of the fears expressed by young Americans, those who would be eligible, is that the draft will be reinstated.  They are afraid they will be called, involuntarily, to fight in war.  Some of these young Americans object to this war on terrorism, some object to all wars, some strive to live non-violently in all aspects of their lives, others have other reasons why they do not wish to be warriors.  Their consciences tell them it is wrong to participate in the violence of war.  They are called conscientious objectors or Cos.  The U.S. Selective Service System defines a CO as “one who is opposed to serving in the armed forces and/or bearing arms on the grounds of moral or religious principles.”

A draft board grants or denies CO status to individuals who apply for it.  Beliefs which qualify a person for CO status may be religious, moral or ethical in nature.  They may not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest; the individual’s lifestyle prior to requesting CO status must reflect his/her current claim to be such.

The government’s board will assign a CO to alternative service outside the military, such as conservation, education or other service industry or to noncombatant capacity within the military.  The assignment should depend on the individual’s specific beliefs.

What does the Catholic Church say about this?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church has three sections [The Authorities in Civil Society (2234,ff),  Safeguarding Peace (2302, ff), and Moral Conscience (1776,ff)] that provide ample information for reflection, dialogue, and decision-making.  Within these sections some of the topics are duties of both civil authorities and of citizens, peace, avoiding war, the judgment of and choosing in accord with conscience, and erroneous judgment.  Some of this material has its parallel in other Church documents as Gaudium et Spes and Pacem in Terris.

Specifically, any individual has the right to act in conscience and freedom but is also responsible for actions taken.  Conscience is defined as “the interior voice of a human being, within whose heart the inner law of God is inscribed.  Moral conscience is a judgment of practical reason about the moral quality of a human action.  It moves a person at the appropriate moment to do good and avoid evil.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1777-78).

Regarding acting according to one’s conscience, the Catechism says:  “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teaching of the Gospel.  Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community.  ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’  ‘We must obey God rather than humans’.”  (2242)

This discussion is more complicated than can be dealt with here and involves for Catholics the question of whether they follow the just-war or the nonviolence tradition.  Section 2309 in the Catechism identified the conditions for legitimate defense by military force.  The two sections following state:  “Public authorities, in this case (just war), have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense (2310) and Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way”  (2311).  The Catechism and statements of Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Bishops can serve as resources to us as can dialogue with others within the Church and in other faith communities who share our values and beliefs.

These are not easy times, the questions are difficult; but we must grapple with them and in that struggle come to know our conscience and to live out of it with integrity.

Jeanne Christensen, RSM is Project Coordinator for the West Midwest Area Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and formerly the Director of the Peace & Justice Office, Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.




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