Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Pacifism: Heresy? 

Occasionally (well, once a day or more) I engage in rapid-fire email debates with one of my readers and friends, the Polish Prince (pictured here). Since I probably put more thought and energy into these than most anything else in my life, including this blog, we both agreed to post one or two of them here, to see if any other readers have anything more to contribute.

Our most recent discussion was on the dogmatic standing of pacifism.

PP: [I]s pacifism a heresy?

J: Could be.

If pacifism is defined as the belief that war is always and everywhere immoral.

Even if the opposite belief has never been formulated de fide, it remains a part of our dogmatic (and conciliar) tradition:

"[G]overnments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense." (Gaudium et Spes, 79)

Of course, the usual conditions apply in order to move from material to formal heresy - obstinacy, etc.

PP: How about the belief that there could technically be a just war, but the refusal to ever participate in such.

J: I doubt that could be formal heresy. That would be a matter of simple volition, not intellect (formal heresy, I believe, requires the refusal to submit the intellect to rightful authority). E.g. To deny that abortion is wrong, and to proclaim definitively that it is just, is heresy. To admit that it is wrong, and to go get one anyway, is not heresy, but sin (perhaps formal sin).

In the same way, to admit that a war is just but to refuse to serve in it, is not heresy, but a sin (of omission in this case).

Now, a third case might be to admit that wars could be just, but to deny that THIS war is just - that would be no heresy, because you haven't denied any principle of church teaching, which does not require us to think that any particular was is just or unjust.

A fourth might be to admit that this war is just, but to profess the belief that one need not participate in a just war. That is an interesting case. Does the Church teach that participation in a just war is morally obligatory? If so, then to deny it would/could be heresy. Certainly there would be exceptions to the obligation - matters of age, sex, etc. But to profess that anyone, irregardless of circumstances, remains unobliged in principle to participate in a war, even a just war, and that any participation in such a war remains strictly 'optional' - hm. This could be heresy. I think our tradition would make such participation more than an optional matter. But the exact level of participation might be a matter of debate - obviously, even if the war in Iraq were just, you and i probably aren't in material sin since we are not in the trenches of Baghdad. Or maybe we are.


PP: I think you have spelled things out quite well. About the fourth point, though, I think the Catechism offers the answer:

2310 Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.

Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.

2311 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

I think if the war was just, and public authorities imposed on us the obligation to defend the country (i.e. draft) we would be required to fight in it.

However, if we truly in conscience believed the war was unjust, I think we would be required to serve the human community in some other way.

Now, the question of whether someone can rightfully, by reason of conscience, never take up arms, even in just wars (and a war he admits is just) is a tough one. I think one would be obstinately refusing to submit their intellect to the teaching of the Church that it is not immoral to operate a weapon in a just war (and, ultimately, to kill enemy soldiers). I don't think one can be a pacifist, yet believe a war is just, and serve the military in a way that saves him from killing (at least if he is a Catholic). It seems that CCC 2311 in bringing up reasons of conscience is speaking of one fighting in a war he truly believes is unjust. I don't think it is saying one can, by reason of conscience, believe that all killing of enemy soldiers is always immoral...given that the Church teaches the just war doctrine.


J: Interesting question. If I admit that the war in Iraq was just, and therefore that it was in self-defense/defense of an innocent, with just cause, etc. and therefore that the killing of enemy combatants in such a war is just, yet I refuse to kill them myself... I'm prone to conclude that such a person is confused, inconsistent or simply weak-willed. But proponents of the conscientious objection position might say that this embodies their position exactly: that they would admit that a war is just yet embrace a 'better path' - assuming (rightly) that something can be just yet other alternatives can be MORE just, or more perfect (think marriage/celibacy).

On second thought, scrap that, it's morally inconsistent - if a war is just, and one of the principles of a just war is that reasonable, peaceful alternatives have been exhausted, then insisting on continuing such peaceful alternatives, in the face of manifest clarity that they have proven useless, becomes not a higher sense of justice but vain and morally inconsistent futility.

PP: Yeah. Bring it to the personal level. If you witnessed a crime occurring and did not do anything to protect the person who was being attacked (even by calling the police who might use force) you would be sinning by omission. Now, back to the war example...if an innocent country was attacked (heck, if you OWN country was attacked) and you said you would cook for the troops but wouldn't fight (even though there were plenty of cooks already and the country needed soldiers), would you not be sinning by omission...that is, allowing an evil to occur to your brothers (compatriots) without defending them? I would think so...

J: Mm. But troops do need cooks. Maybe they could find refuge there. Perhaps that is precisely the legitimate conscientious objector (CO) position. An army needs food as much as it needs gunners. In opting for the kitchen position, you are serving your country, perhaps, just as much, but you avoid personal bloodshed. ?

PP: However, isn't your refusal to shoot an enemy soldier, in a sense, an admission that you believe the act to be unjust? Why would you refuse to do a just act (shooting enemies) for another just act (cooking for troops) unless you truly believe one is LESS JUST than the other (if there is such a possibility of something being LESS JUST). To me it seems that, even though you are not voicing it, you still believe it is unjust to kill, even in a just war.

# posted by Jamie : 2:53 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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