A note of introduction: we, at CARA, are not theologians but pracademics and social scientists specializing in preparing applied research about the Catholic Church. This blogpost was authored by Michal Kramarek with guidance from Fr. Drew Christiansen, SJ, of Georgetown University, Fr. Thomas Gaunt, SJ, of CARA, and Maria Santelli of the Center on Conscience and War. Any errors are the sole responsibility of the author.
In 2018, the Catholic Church revised its teaching on capital punishment from conditionally permissive to a strict one that deems death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2018, §2267). Some commentators believe that the Church may be heading similar direction on the issue of war. In his 2020 Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis came “as far as one can go toward critiquing [Church’s doctrine on war] without rejecting it wholesale” (Christiansen 2020).
The purpose of this blogpost is to briefly present selected statistics about the views of Catholics in the United States on supporting (and objecting to) service in the Armed Forces. In order to provide some background, the first few paragraphs offer a quick overview of Church’s teaching on war starting with the Bible.
What is Church’s Teaching on War?
The Old Testament begins with observations about human propensity towards conflict (as explored in the story about Caine and Abel, in Genesis 4) and the commandment about the unconditional value of human life: “[y]ou shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). It chronicles many military conflicts and praises wartime heroes of the chosen people (e.g., David who killed Goliath, 1 Samuel 17, or Judith who beheaded Holofernes, Judith 10-13). The Old Testament also criticizes those calling for peace “when there is no peace” for being careless (Jeremiah 6:14). While describing turbulent history of the chosen people, the Old Testament hopefully looks to the future when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4).
As described in the New Testament, the coming of Jesus did not bring peace in a military or political sense. Jesus Himself said: “[d]o not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Jesus Himself drove out money-changers from the temple with a whip (John 2:15). Yet, in the Sermon on the Mountain, He exalted the meek (Matthew 5:5), the merciful (Matthew 5:7), and the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). He spoke against not only murder but also insult and anger towards others (Matthew 5:21-22). He commanded to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-45), and to “not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:38-42). He rebuked the person who defended Him with a sword (Mathew 26:51-54) and the person who struck Him (John 18:23).
St. Paul built on Christ’s teachings saying “[d]o not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God (…) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21). However, he also said that “[i]t is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Like Jesus, St. Paul rebuked those who struck him (Acts 23:3).
Early Church was generally pacifist including prohibition on serving in the military and renunciation of military service in the case of adult baptism. In the third century, Saint Maximilian of Tebessa was martyred for refusing military service and is known as the earliest recorded conscientious objector. While the pacifism of the Church in the first three centuries of Christ Era is a subject of some debate, some of the later stances of the Church are clearly not peaceful as exemplified in Her role in the crusades, wars with Protestant denominations, and colonialism. In 2000, Saint Pope John Paul II asked God for forgiveness for the wrongs committed by members of the Church including sins against peace and unity of mankind (see here and here).
Throughout Church’s history, the magisterium continued to clarify Biblical teachings and eventually formulated the “just war” doctrine (with notable contributions from Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine in fourth-fifth century and Saint Thomas Aquinas in thirteenth century). The Catechism of the Catholic Church continues to teach “just war” doctrine to this day allowing war by outlining “strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force,” which state that: the damage inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave, and certain; alternatives to war are impractical or ineffective; there are serious prospects of success; and the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (§2309). The Catechism stresses that “[b]ecause of the evils and injustices that all war brings with it, we must do everything reasonably possible to avoid it” (§2327).
What is the Magisterium on War in the Nuclear Age?
In the age of nuclear weapons, the Church increasingly emphasizes the need for peace and warns about the dangers of war. For instance, in 1965, Council Fathers of the Vatican II condemned total war and the use of weapons that “can inflict massive and indiscriminate destruction” (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes 1965, §80). They also proclaimed that “[i]t is our clear duty (…) to strain every muscle as we work for the time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent” (§82) and that “[t]he courage of those who fearlessly and openly resist those who issue [military commands violating universal natural law] merits supreme commendation” (§79).
The same year, Saint Pope Paul VI said at the United Nations General Assembly “[n]o more war, war never again.” And, two decades later, U.S. Bishops made similar appeals stating that “[p]eacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers” (USCCB 1983, §333).
A decade later, Saint Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1991), expressed hope that “people learn to fight for justice without violence, renouncing (…) war in international [disputes]” (§23) and exclaimed: “[n]o, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war” (§52). Two years later, in 1993, the Pope named Emil Kapaun, United States Army chaplain who died as prisoner of war in the Korean War, as Servant of God clearing first step toward possible canonization. Thus, despite the growing emphasis on peace, the Church continues to teach that people in military service can exemplify heroic virtue during war.
The successor of Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI said that “we must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a ‘just war’ might exist” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 2003). Four years later, in 2007, he beatified Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian executed for refusing to fight for the Third Reich during World War II, as a patron of conscientious objectors.
Current pope, Francis, stated that “[t]he name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone is holy. Peace alone is holy, not war!” (Pope Francis 2016). He also wrote, in his Encyclical Letter on Fraternity and Social Friendship (2020), “[w]e can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’” (§258).
How do Catholics View the Military?
Overall, the Catholic Church continues to teach “just war” doctrine that allows war under strict conditions. However, in the age of nuclear weapons, the Holy See appears to be leaning towards increasingly restrictive teaching where, in practice, meeting the criteria of “just war” is unlikely. Notably, Church documents acknowledge that there is a “range of strongly held opinion in the Catholic community on questions of fact and judgment concerning issues of war and peace” (USCCB 1983, p.1). To develop a better understanding of those opinions, CARA and other institutions conducted a number of different surveys of Catholics. Current research offers only fragmentary insights. A few of the most relevant findings are described below.
According to the General Social Survey, between 1973 and 2018, on average, two in five (36%) of U.S. adults who were raised Catholic felt that the United States is spending too much on the military, armaments, and defense. By comparison, two in five (41%) felt the amount is about right, and one in five (22%) felt that it is too little. In each of the past five decades, those raised Catholic were 4 to 7 percentage points more likely than those who were not raised Catholic to feel that United States is spending too much on the military, armaments, and defense (see the chart below).
How Do Catholics View Military Service?
The Catholic Church recognizes and even venerates (as in the case of blessed Emil Kapaun) individual Catholics who serve in the military. The Church declares that “[t]hose 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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1992, §2310).
The motivations for serving in the military are complex and include both ideological and practical factors, thus the available statistics should be interpreted with caution. Having said that, according to the General Social Survey, U.S. adults who were raised Catholic were about as likely as all the others to have served in the military in 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. However, in 2010s the difference was statistically significant as those raised Catholic were 2 percentage points less likely than those who were not raised Catholic to be military veterans (see the chart below).
How Do Catholics View Conscientious Objection?
The Catholic Church recognizes and even venerates (as in the case of blessed Franz Jägerstätter) individual Catholics who object to unjust war. The Church also esteems Catholics who object to any war. Vatican II Council Fathers “express [their] admiration for all who forego the use of violence to vindicate their rights and resort to other means of defense which are available to weaker parties, provided it can be done without harm to the rights and duties of others and of the community” (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes 1965, §78).
In terms of practical implications for the faithful, the U.S. Bishops teach that “[t]he overriding principal that binds Catholics-and all human beings-is that we must follow our conscience. (…) If an individual Catholic objects to all war (…) the Church and our Nation have recognized this as an exception that must be honored, if it is rooted in authentic conscientious objection and not lesser motives. (…) The short answer to the question: If a Catholic is utterly convinced in conscience that a war is unjust and his own role constitutes direct participation in the effort, he has the right and obligation to object and even refuse to participate, regardless of the consequences to person and career” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, statement on conscientious objection).
Notably, the practice of Catholic teaching on selective conscientious objection is not allowed under U.S. law. The Congress has not legislated it and the Supreme Court declined to recognize it (Gillette v. United States 1971). According to the United States Department of Defense, “[t]he individual’s objections must be to all wars rather than a specific war” (Instruction 1300.06 from July 2017). In practice, however, the military has adapted to what are essentially selective conscientious objections with routine procedures of reassignment and separation.
According to General Social Survey data, U.S. adults who were raised Catholic were 7 percentage points more likely than all other U.S. adults to believe that conscientious objectors should be exempted from a military draft (if the United States reinstated it). Nonetheless, the majority (57%) of those raised Catholic were against accommodating conscientious objectors (see the chart below). Notably, the underlying survey was conducted in 1982, when the tensions between USA and USSR were on the rise. Both Catholics’ and general public’s views are likely to be different today.
Overall, the diversity of views of Catholics in the United States may be reflective of the current nuanced teachings of the Church. However, presently available data is relatively fragmented and, in some cases, out of date. More research could prove very valuable in this area.