From Under the Rubble…Should Catholics Join the Military?

­Ten years ago, on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary, Most Reverend Edwin F. O’Brien, Archbishop for the Military Services, wrote the chaplains under his command. His letter focused on the question, whether Catholics could morally take part in the invasion of Iraq, which had just begun.

The Catholic answer was not a “slam dunk.” Pope John Paul II had called the war a “defeat for humanity” long before it started. Moreover, Bishop John Botean, head of a small Byzantine Catholic diocese based in Ohio, went even further in a widely-distributed pa­storal letter dated March 7, 2003, admonishing those in his flock not to take part in the war, under pain of mortal sin. After a careful consideration of the Just War Theory as explained in the Catholic Catechism, Bishop Botean concludes:

With moral certainty I say to you it [the Iraq War] does not meet even the minimal standards of the Catholic just war theory… I hereby authoritatively state that such direct participation is intrinsically and gravely evil and therefore absolutely forbidden.

Archbishop O’Brien differs, disagrees, but addresses the question very carefully. He tells his priests that they can comfort those in combat units under their pastoral care who might be troubled in conscience:

Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience.

Archbishop O’Brien’s letter is careful not to endorse the war, or to indulge in patriotic rhetoric. Instead, he suggests patience, and prudence:

Long after the hostilities cease the debate likely will continue as to the moral justification for the armed force recently initiated by the United States and its allies. It is to be hoped that all factors which have led to our intervention will eventually be made public and that the full picture of the Iraqi regime’s weaponry and brutality will shed helpful light upon our President’s decision.

Well, ten years later, we know more than we ever wanted to know about “the factors that led to our intervention” – and its consequences. But silence reigns. Few of the war’s champions seem to care that Christianity has been virtually annihilated in Iraq. Nor do they notice that, ironically (and tragically, given the hubris involved), the war produced in Iraq something that Iran never could have achieved on its own: a Shiite regime allied with Teheran.

Heroes and Zeroes

In retrospect, the unjust war abroad enabled the mammoth growth of government and a concomitant loss of liberty at home. But is this anything new? “War is the health of the state,” Randolph Bourne wrote during World War One. And long before 9-11, Solzhenitsyn had warned that “falsehood always brings violence in its wake.”

Lies and war have always strolled arm-in-arm. Woodrow Wilson campaigned against entering the World War in 1916; he won, and six months later, we were in it. FDR promised in 1940 we would stay out of the next war. He won, even as he was scheming to get us into it.

But do lying politicians make moral monsters out of the millions of Americans whom they send off to war? Not necessarily. Two Catholic chaplains, Father Emil Kapuan and Father Vincent R. Capodanno, have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for giving their lives while protecting wounded soldiers under fire in Korea and Viet Nam, respectively. More importantly, both have been named Servants of God by the Catholic Church, the first step in the path to canonization.

Does that make chaplains the only moral actors in war? Bishop Fulton J. Sheen didn’t think so. For years the most popular Catholic in America, Bishop Sheen had good things to say about soldiers – even if they weren’t Catholic. During the Viet Nam War, he was invited to speak at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Father Thomas Curley, the chaplain, accompanied him to the chapel, where an overflow crowd of 1700 cadets and guests was waiting to see him. Just before he was introduced, Bishop Sheen startled Father Curley with a question: “Is there anything in particular you’d like me to speak about, Father?”

Father Curley was aghast: the bishop hadn’t even prepared a talk! But he made no suggestion, and Bishop Sheen didn’t need one: without a script (he never used one), he told the story of the Centurions in the New Testament (his talk has become a classic and is available here:

Bishop Sheen vividly described the Centurions’ role in Scripture. When Jesus cures the servant of the Centurion at Capernam, he also marvels at the faith of the Roman officer. “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” (Luke 7:9). When Longinus the Centurion pierces the side of Christ with his lance on Calvary, he falls on his knees and exclaims, “Truly, this was the Son of God.” (Matt. 27:54). Cornelius, the Centurion who invites Saint Peter into his home and takes instruction from him there, becomes the first Gentile member of the Catholic Church. (Acts 10:1-48). When Paul is sent to Rome, the Centurion Julius treats him with respect and consideration (Acts 27:3). Once in Rome, the Centurion at the Mamertine Prison allows Paul to live on his own and preach the Gospel for two years, always guarded by a soldier from the cohort. (Acts 28:16).

“The story of the early Church ends with that story, the story of a Roman officer allowing Paul to preach the Gospel,” Bishop Sheen tells the future officers. “That this is your glory, regardless of what anyone may say… you are the guardians of civilization, you are the guardians of religion and morality. That is your mission.”

Catholics and the Next War

So Catholics can serve in the military. But should they? Things have changed since Bishop Sheen’s day. In recent years, an avalanche of idiocy has inundated the military. From the Christian perspective (as well as that of common sense), the enlistment of gays invites disaster. Putting women in combat just makes things worse. Dysfunction has led to high rates of suicides and PTSD, while the services respond with endless indoctrination sessions. Put simply, the government’s treatment of the military as an ideological sandbox presents the prospective Catholic soldier with a pretty difficult obstacle course between him and the local recruiting office.

But soon the notion of a “volunteer force” itself may be a thing of the past. The world faces potential wars in virtually every time zone today. Archbishop O’Brien had good reason to be wary of the true aims of the Iraq War’s cheerleaders ten years ago; today mere suspicion has given way to outright distrust, even cynicism. The current administration recognizes this: hence, it doesn’t bother to ask Congress for constitutional authority to go to war – or to bring the war home via the Predator or Homeland Security. It’s all up to the president’s whim.

Even patriotism has waned as a military motivator. Venal politicians have transformed “patriotic duty” from a love of country, home, hearth, church, and family into a crass demand for love of government.

Without patriotism, what is left? Sheer force. We are only one crisis away from the reinstatement of the draft, for both men and women. Resisters might face internment – after all, Lincoln did it, didn’t he? A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and politicians often try to end economic crises through wars. So the logic is in place for the next step. At that point, a crisis of a different kind will confront Catholics and all men of good will. After all, the Just War Theory requires that the grave decision to go to war is “subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy.” (CCC 2309)

Who knows? If our rulers are morally illegitimate – if, in Archbishop O’Brien’s words, the Catholic patriot cannot “presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments” – his path might lie not in fighting for the government abroad, but fighting for his country against the government at home.


This article, From Under the Rubble…Should Catholics Join the Military? is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

Christopher Manion

  • living closer to Christ, Who teaches us to trust first in Him and offer the other chick… I still don’t get it the choice to go to war or become a soldier, with the risk of killing somebody. But that’s just a Bolivian point of view.

  • Lee Gilbert says:

    Just from the standpoint that the sacraments are increasingly unavailable in the military due to a shortage of Catholics chaplains, it seems madness to join the military. To put oneself in harms way and in a number of morally dicey situations without access to Confession, to the last rites, to good counsel, to the strength and consolation that the Eucharist affords is simply mad from the Catholic, eternal standpoint.

    Then, too, how can a Catholic priest allow himself to be co-opted by the ungodly policies and ethos of the military? It is no place for a priest, therefore no place for Catholics.

    Among the morally dicey situations are 1) to allow oneself to be surrounded by fellow soldiers who have no religious or moral formation whatever, but bad companions corrupt morals; 2) to place oneself in a situation where pornography, filthy talk, and filthy living is rampant; 3) to subject oneself to training that has no moral referent whatever, where one is required, for example, to yell at the top of his lungs that he is a professional killer because he receives a soldier’s pay. “What are you, men?” “Professional killers, sergeant!!” etc., etc.

  • Fred says:

    When I was younger I joined the military thinking at least I would be fighting or detering atheist communism.I believed the military had some values that were good.

    Not Today.

    Now the atheists are home here, there is no code of conduct worth having in the new gay army. Moral relativism rules the day.

    I would NEVER recommend it for a Catholic. Why fight for a government that does not respect you? And in fact makes fun of you?

    NO WAY.

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