Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Catholic Looks At Veteran's Day

(hat tip to The Wanderer Forum Foundation,

Veteran's Day Address to Notre Dame ROTC Tri-Military Veteran’s Day Ceremony

Prof. Emeritus Charles E. Rice, Notre Dame Law School, University of Notre Dame

Nov. 11, 2010

This commemoration used to be called Armistice Day, in observance of the end of World War One. That was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” It didn’t work out that way, as your presence here in uniform confirms.

You are volunteers. One price you pay for that decision is misunderstanding by others as to who you are and what you are doing. In an environment of “political correctness,” especially on college campuses, we can understand how sincere but misinformed critics disparage your choice and the military vocation as contrary to the Christian tradition. But those critics are wrong. Let’s try to set the record straight.

When “soldiers” asked John the Baptist, “And we—what are we to do?,” John did not tell them to find another line of work. “[H]e said to them, ‘Plunder no one, accuse no one falsely, and [perhaps most important] be content with your pay.” St. Paul did not demand that newly converted Christians who were soldiers must leave that profession. Instead he said, “Let every man remain in the calling in which he was called….[I]n the state in which he was called, let every man remain with God.” In the early Church, Christian pacifists drew support from Tertullian, Origen, Lactantius, and other theologians, but they reflected neither the dominant Christian view nor the teaching of the Church.

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., dealt with this issue: “What was the attitude of the early Church toward the bearing of arms? More truly citizens of the earthly fatherland than has sometimes been thought, Christians similarly did not hesitate to become soldiers, charged with their country’s defense and perhaps extension. Accordingly, we find numbers of them in the Roman armies at a time when military service was obligatory only for the sons of veterans or in the infrequent cases of extraordinary levies. The fact that Emperor Galerius on the threshold of the fourth century had to ‘purge’ the armed forces because they had too many Christians is the best proof that, from the end of the second century to the beginning of the fourth, ‘conscientious objection’ was not felt by the majority.”

One reason for the rejection of military service by some early Christians was not an intrinsic objection to military service as such, but rather the potential of that service to require immoral conduct and idolatry. An example from the third century illustrates the duty of the Christian citizen both to participate in the common defense and to recognize that his ultimate loyalty is to God rather than to the State. The Theban Legion, composed entirely of Egyptian Christians and stationed at Thebes in Egypt, was ordered by the Emperor Maximian to march to Gaul to suppress a rebellion. Under the command of Mauritius (Maurice), the Legion marched through the Alps into Gaul. Maximian then ordered, in 287, that the whole army must offer sacrifice to the pagan gods and must take an oath to assist in the extermination of Christians in Gaul. The members of the Theban Legion unanimously refused. Their number is commonly placed at 6,600, although that number has been disputed. In reaction to the Legion’s refusal, Maximian ordered the legion to be decimated, with every tenth man selected to be killed. A second decimation followed, but the survivors remained resolute. Following the lead of Maurice and their other officers, they sent Maximian a reply which capsulizes the vocation and duty of the Christian soldier:

We are your soldiers, but are also servants of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience; but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours even though you reject Him. In all things which are not against His law we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto. We readily oppose all your enemies, whoever they are; but we cannot dip our hands into the blood of innocent persons. We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you: you can place no confidence in our second oath if we violate the first. You command us to punish the Christians; behold, we are such. We confess God the Father, author of all things, and His Son, Jesus Christ. We have seen our companions slain without lamenting them, and we rejoice at their honour. Neither this nor any other provocation has tempted us to revolt. We have arms in our hands, but we do not resist because we would rather die innocent than live by any sin.

Maximian proceeded to execute every member of the Legion, none of whom offered any resistance. The massacre occurred at Agaunum, now St. Maurice-en-Valais, Switzerland.

So don’t let anyone, on this campus or elsewhere, tell you that your commitment to military service is somehow inconsistent with the Christian tradition. That commitment might be unpopular with one group or another from time to time. But it is a noble calling fully in accord with, and indeed dictated by, the Christian tradition.

It is not enough, however, for you to rest on the assurance that you are doing the right thing. You have to know why it is so and you have to be prepared to educate your critics on the realities of the duty to defend the common good. So let’s review some basic principles.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the traditional Christian view that “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.” 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.”

Such defense must satisfy “just war” analysis. The requirements for jus ad bellum, justice in going to war, are proper authority, just cause and right intention. The Catechism lists further details: “[T]he damage inflicted by the aggressor… must be lasting, grave and certain;” war must be a last resort, with “all other means impractical or ineffective,” “there must be serious prospects of success;” and “the use of arms must not produce evils… graver than the evil to be eliminated.” “The evaluation of these conditions,” however, “belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” Citizens, including members of the military, are obliged, in effect, to give a benefit of the doubt to the decisions of those in lawful authority.

Jus in bello, justice in fighting a war, requires proportionality and discrimination (non-combatant immunity from intentional attack). The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” Pursuant to the principle of the double effect, however, it can be morally justified to attack a military target of sufficient importance even though the attacker knows, but does not intend, that innocent civilians will be killed in the attack. The key is the intent. No one ever has the moral right to intentionally kill the innocent. But the good act of attacking the legitimate target can be justified even though it has the unintended evil effect of killing the innocent, provided that the good effect of the attack is not obtained by means of the evil effect and provided there is sufficient reason for permitting the unintended evil effect.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice, the very restrictive Rules of Engagement and other binding military policies effectively protect noncombatants and otherwise conform to the requirements of jus in bello. Some military personnel violate the law but their record is far better than that of corporate executives and members of Congress. And the armed services are diligent, sometimes even to the point of excess, in prosecuting putative offenses.

The Second Vatican Council affirmed that, “All those who enter military service in loyalty to their country should look upon themselves as the custodians of the security and freedom of their fellow countrymen; and when they carry out their duty properly, they are contributing to the maintenance of peace.”

The universal pacifist refuses to take part in any and all wars: “Those who renounce violence,” said Vatican II, “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… risks of recourse to violence.” However, a universal pacifism which denies the right of the state to use force in defense, is inconsistent with the teaching of the Church.

Granting the sincerity of universal pacifists, their claim to moral superiority is flawed. One can well “bear witness to evangelical charity” by renouncing force in defending himself. The universal pacifist, who denies that force can ever be used in defense of the common good, would refuse to defend not only himself but others. He would deny to his fellow citizens their right to have the state provide what the Catechism calls “legitimate defense by military force.”

Unlike the universal pacifist, the selective pacifist refuses to take part in a particular war he regards as unjust. The law of the United States allows exemptions from military service only for universal, and not for selective pacifists. The Catechism urges, but does not require, the state to make “equitable provision” for all conscientious objectors who “are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way.” It is difficult, however, to see how an exemption for selective objectors, who object not to war in general but only to a particular war, could be administered without inviting fraudulent evasion.

Whatever its legal status, selective pacifism is required by the teaching of the Church. We should all be selective pacifists, insisting, with prudence, that any war—or any other act of 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. All wars are debatable, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Subject to the legitimate authority of Congress, the president has the duty to defend the nation. His decisions and those of Congress are entitled to a strong benefit of the doubt. But there are limits.

To participate in the defense of the nation and the common good is an honorable calling. Those who do so deserve appreciation and respect. So, please, do not permit anyone to try to lay a guilt trip on you for your commitment to your country’s military service. You should be proud of that freely given service. You have earned the appreciation and respect of the Notre Dame community, and especially of those who profess allegiance to the Christian tradition.

Yesterday was the 235th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Permit me to quote a line from the Marine Corps Hymn which I rightly apply to you and to the Army, Navy and Air Force in honor of your service: “Here’s health to you and to our Corps, which we are proud to serve.”

Thank you. And God bless you.


Luke 3:14.

1 Cor. 7:20-24.

John A. Hardon, S.J., The Catholic Catechism (1975), 346-347.

Butler’s Lives of the Saints (1963), vol. III, 619.

The Roman Theban Legion, St. Maurice of the Theban Legion,


Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), no. 2308.

CCC, no. 2310.

CCC, no. 2309.

Gaudium et Spes, no. 79.

CCC, no. 2306.

CCC, no. 2309.

CCC, no. 2311.