The Christian Soldier


March 1, 1984

Like those of a number of people in my infantry outfit, my dogtags were stamped with a capital C. C for Catholic. The dogtags of others were stamped J (Jewish) or P (Protestant). There were more stamped with P, not only because there were more Protestants in the outfit, but because anyone who did not specifically claim to be Catholic or Jewish was almost automatically assigned to Protestantism. It was assumed that we were a religious country and that all soldiers belonged to some religion. It was also assumed that the major religions of the country supported the military policies of the country. And while others could claim to belong to denominations that allowed pacifism, the term “Catholic pacifist” was deemed to be a contradiction in terms. After all, the Catholic Church was not known as a “peace church.”

In the years since the second world war, these assumptions have gradually been eroded. It is now generally, and fortunately, acknowledged that Catholics can be pacifists, conscientious objectors or selective conscientious objectors. These positions are now honored within the Church, the appropriate references to them securely anchored in a variety of documents going back to those of Vatican II. There can be no turning back from these newly established, or newly recovered, positions. Nor should there be. But some of the pressures that have helped bring about this truly remarkable shift within the modern Church have had some unfortunate side-effects. Where previously the soldier was honored and the Catholic pacifist was, at most, grudgingly acknowledged, now the Catholic pacifist is being honored and the role of the Catholic solider is being re-examined and sometimes questioned.

Three separate incidents: 1) I was in a small conference at which an army general explained U.S. strategy in specific geographical areas. A good and humane presentation, which led a young nun in the group to introduce her own comments by saying, “Well, you certainly don’t sound like a murderer.” Smiles and some titters among the rest of the group, but as one of them said to me later in extenuation of the obvious gaucherie, “Well, we all know what she really meant.”

2) My friends have a son, twenty-two years old, who enlisted in the Marines. Another twenty-two-year-old, on hearing of this, said, “Couldn’t his parents have done something about him?” “What do you mean,” I asked. “Well, couldn’t they have stopped him?  Couldn’t they have put him in an institution?” So terrible was it voluntarily to enlist in military service.

3) Among the members of the small group with which I was traveling in Europe was a Marine colonel. A Catholic, he was very intelligent, very dedicated to his service, and very concerned about the men under his command, a number of whom are also Catholic. They took seriously the attitude of the Church which, they had always assumed, gave moral support to their vocation.  Like most Catholics, they did not read the bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace. But what they read in the press and what they were asked by their friends unsettled their previously unquestioned assumptions about the position of the Church. It was the lot of the colonel, who also took seriously the letter of the American bishops, to read, understand and interpret that letter to his men. To offer, in effect, pastoral counseling. What is new, of course, is that such counseling is necessary.

Three such incidents cannot masquerade as statistical evidence. I would wailer, however, that many other people could relate similar experiences. What they indicate is not a shift in what the Church teaches about the proper role of the military in the life of the nation or about the proper role of a person in her military. A nation-state has a right and obligation to defend its citizens, by force of arms if necessary. And it is the right and sometimes a moral obligation for the citizen to bear arms in such a struggle. But in the attempt to make traditional teaching relevant to the conditions of modern war — to ensure that such teaching gains a real purchase on current U.S. policy and practice — the American bishops have pressed just-war teachings as hard as they can. And other Catholics have pushed them even further, one theologian asserting that Catholics in the line of command may soon have to choose between loyalty to the church and their military careers.

What has changed then, is not the traditional teaching, but the climate in which the teaching is applied. This change colors most of the debate that is taking place among Catholics in this country. It would be more than un-fortunate if this shift caused us to diminish the honor due those men and women who serve in our military forces; it would be unCatholic and unjust.


  • James Finn

    James Finn is author of Protest: Pacifism and Politics, a study of the Vietnam peace movement, and, when Crisis was originally published in 1982, he was editor of Freedom at Issue, the bimonthly journal of Freedom House.

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