The Future of the Catholic Peace Movement

From the December 28, 1973 issue

With the situation in Indochina still highly uncertain, it may seem premature to turn our attention to the postwar prospects of the Catholic peace-and-resistance movement. In actual fact, it may already be too late. There is a tendency, once a war has come to its end, for those who have opposed it at no small cost to themselves in terms of personal strains and difficulties to breathe a sigh of welcome relief and retreat into anonymity and retirement. At the end of World War II, the Catholic peace movement (such as it was) fragmented and all but disappeared. If this is not to happen again, now is the appropriate time to consider the question of where we go from here.

Most immediately, of course, there is the need to deal with issues and problems related to the war, the "unfinished business" at home that still remains. Foremost among these is the question of amnesty for the war-resisters. Bringing back the exiles and wiping the record clear for American prisoners of conscience may prove to be harder to accomplish than those other objectives which commanded so much time, money and dedication over the long years of the war. Yet none of us who had any part in the various demonstrations and campaigns to awaken others to the realization that our government had committed this nation and its human and material resources to an essentially unjust and immoral war can walk away and abandon the young men who, once they "got our message," put themselves in extreme personal jeopardy rather than take part in the unholy venture. Since many of these men are Catholics who were unable to gain recognition as conscientious objectors because obedience to the traditional teachings of the Church made their objection "selective," they have a special claim upon the continued efforts of those who consider themselves part of a Catholic peace movement.

We have a responsibility, too, to do everything possible to free the political prisoners held by the tyrannical regime our nation's leaders have seen fit to install and maintain in South Vietnam. As long as individuals who dared speak out for peace and reconciliation when such views were defined as treason are locked in their tiger cages and subject to the inhuman torture from which many have died or suffered permanent injury, we cannot even speak of the war as a thing of the past. Nor can we omit from this catalogue of "loose ends" the damage done to North Vietnam and its population. Whether we describe it in ego-saving terms as reconstruction aid or more honestly face up to obligations of making reparations, we in the peace movement have to do all we can to persuade our fellow-citizens of the moral right­ ness of such programs and use what influence we have to promote disbursement of the necessary funds through international channels so that the danger of substituting American economic domination of Indochina for the unsuccessful attempt at military ' domination may be minimized.

Only when these things have been done—when all forms of American military involvement have ended; when the exiles are amnestied and prisoners of conscience in Vietnam and America freed; when the devastated areas throughout Indochina have been rebuilt—will the war really have come to an end. Even then, however, the books must not be closed on the Vietnam experience. There are still the lessons to be learned and applied. At the immediate, most pragmatic, level, the lessons have to do with foreign policies and alignments of world power which produced Vietnam in the first place and which, unless they are reconsidered and drastically revised, are almost certain to produce "other Vietnams" in Latin America and elsewhere. It will be the task of an alert and effective peace movement to expose this danger and its sources and to promote the new policies and priorities which will be required if the peace we are so eager to welcome is to endure.

There is a corollary to this that, in a very real sense, is even more important. The war may have been the logical outcome of national policies and economic practices, but these in turn reflect a failure of moral and theological controls which made them and their tragic consequences possible. It will be a matter of highest priority, then, that the peace movement force an objective after-the-fact assessment of the war according to traditional just war conditions and principles; indeed, such a review by theologians and other competent scholars should address itself to the more fundamental question of whether the just war tradition is itself valid in the context of modern war. This should have been done after World War II: after all, a leading German theologian had counseled the Catholics of Nazi Germany against raising the issue of the justice of the war before all the evidence was in; unfortunately, once the war was over and all the evidence was at hand, the matter seems to have been dropped. Vietnam and the excesses perpetrated on both sides of the conflict have given us a second chance, a "test case" that virtually cries out for systematic theological analysis and explicit judgment as to the justice of the war and the permissibility of active participation in its prosecution. I, for one, have no doubt whatsoever that the Indochina war can be shown to have violated most, if not all, of the conditions of the just war. Further, I am convinced that this will be true of any war, certainly any war we have experienced or are likely to experience. It should be a function of a viable Catholic peace movement to force these pacifist hypotheses to the test.

There are some, of course, who would question the existence of a "viable Catholic peace movement," preferring to explain the record of opposition to Vietnam (and, by extension, to World War II as well) as a scattering of parallel individual responses to a given set of stimuli. This, it seems to me, is unduly pessimistic. Even when one grants the obvious truth that overall organization and direction was lacking in both instances, there was enough awareness of broad common objectives and similarity of action—imposed often enough by circumstances and governmental authority—with both linked to shared religious values to justify the use of the "movement" description. Catholic resistance to the Indochina war took many forms ranging from mild, even private, expressions of dissent and disapproval to the more dramatic draft board raids and other forms of open civil disobedience. Participants in the one may not have approved of the course chosen by the others, but all were likely to recognize and even "identify" with the existence of something they called a "movement" as a uniting, if not always a unifying, force.

Granted this may not meet all the strict criteria for the sociological ideal of a social movement, enough of the defining characteristics are present to justify applying that generic term. The movement’s “viability" is quite another question, and the answer may well depend upon what happens at this precise point in time. After World War II, the already fragmented "movement," represented for the most part by the relatively few Catholic conscientious objectors who performed alternate service and their even fewer supporters, dissolved completely until nothing remained to show for it but the Catholic Worker, its principal benefactor throughout the war period, and a scattering of individuals who took it upon themselves to maintain occasional contact with one another and do what they could to keep a peace witness alive. This history must not be allowed to repeat itself. Present indications of what will happen are mixed.

Here and there one gets word of peace activists who have moved on to experiments in communal living which, as they describe their hopes and intentions, will deepen their commitment to peace by creating a lifestyle more conducive to the fullest expression of the Gospel teachings. The great majority, however seem to have passed through the war and its experiences with little or nothing more than the minimum of contact with one another, a poor foundation on which to build any promise of continuity. The Catholic Peace Fellowship's draft­ counseling services were extended to many young men­ numbering in the hundreds each month at the height of the war, I have been told—most of whom were seeking information on how they might gain classification as conscientious objectors; few of them troubled to become members of the organization which pro­ vided them with such crucial assistance at their time of need or to contribute anything to its support. It is not at all encouraging that this most tangible sign of a Catholic peace movement can manage to sustain its always pre­ carious existence only by the contributions and participation of the "older generation" of Catholic pacifists and, to an even greater extent, by the subsidy provided by its "parent" organization, the non-denominational Fellowship of Reconciliation. So, too, with American PAX Society, recently accepted as the American section of Pax Christi International. If anything, this group which has some significant contributions to its credit with respect to "getting the peace message" to the American bishops and other "influentials" has had an even harder time of it in attracting active members and the finances it requires.

 

Assessment

This, then, is the situation today. An assessment of the postwar prospects for a viable Catholic peace movement must take account of its present strengths and weaknesses. To put these into sharpest perspective, it may be helpful to compare the current situation with the one that prevailed at the end of World War II. For obvious reasons, what follows will have to be a highly impressionistic review, one colored by my own values and conceptualizations of what such a movement and its objectives should be. I am fully aware that these "biases," if one chooses to call them that, may lead me to conclusions that the new generation of peace activists may find questionable if not altogether unacceptable.

To begin on a positive and noncontroversial note, let us consider the strengths. Compared to the situation that obtained in 1945, the Catholic opposition to war as it enters the post-Vietnam era can claim a great advantage in numbers, a deeper (or, at least, more daring) level of commitment, and some real victories to its credit. Catholic objectors in Civilian Public Service during World War II numbered 135 with perhaps a slightly smaller number of "resisters" in prison and a considerably larger, though still relatively inconsequential, number of men classified as objectors and assigned to noncombat duty in the military forces. Over and above these, there were a few priests and others willing to encourage and support them in their opposition to the war, but for the most part they were either ignored or publicly scorned by their fellow Catholics. The Vietnam years, in contrast, have witnessed large numbers of young Catholics seeking (and to a surprising degree, gaining) the CO classification while others went to prison for refusing to register, burning their draft cards, and other forms of activist resistance. Even more remarkable was the extent to which Catholics who, for reason of sex or age, were not subject to the draft but, nevertheless, found ways to register opposition to the war-marching and demonstrating; collecting vast sums of money for the ever-proliferating defense funds; refusing to pay telephone and other taxes; and engaging in overt civil disobedience. The "great Catholic peace conspiracy" may have represented only a small segment of the total Catholic population, but its determination and its visibility made it a phenomenon unique in modern Church history.

It is that note of determination that represents the second basic strength noted above. The comparison in terms of intensity of commitment and dedication is more difficult to establish. Certainly the readiness (at time eagerness) to embrace the "prison witness" was not that much in evidence on the part of the opposition to World War II. Although there were men in prison for refusal to register and, relatively late in the war, for refusing to continue the "cooperation" represented by the alternate service program, it is safe to assume that most of the Catholic war opponents in prison were there because their draft boards had rejected their re­ quests for classification as conscientious objectors, leaving prison as the only alternative to violating their consciences. In short, most of the visible opponents to that war were law-abiding in their opposition. It would be unfair, however, to let the comparison stand at that without noting the obvious point that the mere fact of standing in opposition to the extremely popular "crusade" against Hitler and the infamous "Japs" was in itself an act that called for a greater measure of commitment than would the mere fact of opposition to the unpopular war in Indochina.

Be that as it may, the war's unpopularity, coupled with the readiness to confront the war-makers more aggressively even to the point of civil disobedience, provided the third great strength of the Catholic peace movement as it moves into the postwar period, namely the truly significant victories it can claim. Most immediately obvious, of course, are the victories won in the courtroom. Camden, and Harrisburg before it, demonstrated a major reversal of judicial procedures. This writer, among others, was denied the opportunity to testify at the first Berrigan trial (for the Baltimore blood-pouring) because what I would have said was considered extraneous and irrelevant to the "crime" as narrowly defined. Camden, in contrast, was permitted to develop into an extended "teach-in" for the benefit of the jury (and the broader public, to the extent that the strangely erratic and limited press coverage permitted) on the evils of the Vietnam War and the national policies which made it inevitable. The hung jury at Harrisburg and the acquittals at Camden would have been unthinkable at earlier points in the legal struggles; they would have been nothing short of miraculous in the atmosphere of World War II.

There is, however, an even more significant set of "victories" for the Catholic peace movement represented in the distinct change of posture reflected in the official statements of the American hierarchy—most specifically in its endorsement of conscientious objection as a legitimate moral option for the Catholic, its recommendations in support of selective conscientious objection, and the public call, overly qualified though it may have been, for amnesty toward anti-war exiles and deserters. How lasting a victory this will be depends in large part on where we go from here. If the Catholic peace movement disintegrates and diminishes to a weak and uninspired minority within the Church, most of what has been gained in this respect will be lost.

 

"Weaknesses"

Which brings us to the question of the "weaknesses" I see in the movement as it faces the postwar challenge. It is with considerable reluctance that I approach this subject, knowing that much of what I have to say will be misunderstood and that much of what is understood will be rejected. Despite this, the discussion must be opened for the good of the movement itself even at the price of division and dissension. Since there is clearly a generation factor to be taken into account, much of what I see as weakness may appear to others in the movement as a promise of future strength. That, too, is a matter calling for open discussion and debate. The first critical weakness, as I see it, is an absence of a sufficiently sharp focus, a diffuseness (one might even say confusion) of objectives and tactics that can only operate to the movement's disadvantage. The emphasis in .rhetoric and activity upon "systemic" causes and relationships in which war and its evils becomes a symptom or effect has produced a tendency to get involved in too many issues at too many levels. As a result it has spread itself and its activities too thin at the expense of consistency. The few of us who were in the peace movement of World War II were not unaware of "the system" and the relationships be­ tween war and other forms of social injustice and immorality. People like Dorothy Day and Paul Hanly Furfey, in their writings and in their work, knew all about such things, Dorothy repeatedly calling to mind the Eric Gill dictum that "it all goes together" and Furfey tracing the interlocking complex of social problems to the workings of "the mystery of iniquity." Even a cursory review of the Catholic CO quarterly published briefly during and immediately after the war will show evidence of concern for such things as racism, labor justice, the evils of urbanism, and support for "Christian anarchism." I recall lively discussions in our CO Camp supporting Gandhi in his movement for Indian independence, exploring the possibilities of ecumenism, and a wide range of similar topics. Nevertheless there was no question as to what should be given priority in our thought and action: these were the peace issues. And what were they? An end to the war; elimination of the draft; disarmament; effective international organization (involving, as most of us saw it, an end to divisive state sovereignty); and the promotion of non­violence as the alternative to war. I would suggest that these are still, or should be, the concerns claiming priority for a Catholic peace movement today—with the issue of amnesty for war-resisters added at the head of the list.

This does not mean that individuals in the peace movement will not also be engaged in other movements for racial justice, poverty rights and the end to imperialism. Nor does it mean that the Catholic peace movement I envision could not, or even should not, participate in coalition activity. When it does choose to participate, however, it should be as an independent equal among others, joining with these others where issues and concerns overlap but never for a moment surrendering or abandoning its prior commitment to its own special purposes and objectives. Far too often, social action coalitions have degenerated into a bureaucratic intermingling of a wide-ranging variety of organizations and movements which, in order to attract the largest possible "body count” are forced to settle for a "least common denominator" program to avoid offending any of the coalition partners. There is nothing in my suggestion which precludes ad hoc participation in immediate emergency demonstrations (a Selma march, a Wounded Knee protest, etc.) but this is far removed from the type of situation in which the Catholic peace movement submerges itself in coalition efforts, dissipating its energies and impact by whirling from one "cause" to the next on a "crusade-a-week" basis.

That a Catholic peace movement should give priority to issues most directly related to its special peace commitment ought to be self-evident. By the same token, one should be able to take it for granted that a Catholic peace movement should be, before all else, recognizably Catholic. The second weakness I see relates to this. It is my impression that many who have involved themselves in the movement are inclined to play down or ignore—in some cases consciously divest themselves of—a Catholic identity and the behavioral limitations it might impose upon them. If it means anything at all, a Catholic identity would seem to require that the movement and its members, at the very least, present themselves as loyal and committed members of the institutional Church performing an important, though sadly neglected, part of her mission.

At first glance this may strike the reader as an in­ excusably narrow view quite out of keeping with today’s ecumenical awakening. It need not be so. There is no reason why close and fraternal cooperation among members of the different faiths cannot be maintained at the same time that the separate religious communities preserve their own special character and approaches to the truth. More to the point, however, there is a sociological dimension (or, if one prefers, a tactical consideration) that must be taken into account. If one speaks in terms of effectiveness of appeal, a clearly and explicitly Catholic peace movement is the only kind which can hope to reach what has to be its primary target audience, that great majority of Catholics, lay and clergy, who are not yet alert to the pacifist implications of their religious tradition.

Loyalty, in this context, implies acknowledging and respecting the authority structure of the Church no matter how critical one may be of the failures of that structure, no matter how determined he may be to work toward changes in that structure. Commitment means putting the peace mission of the Church above one's personal interests and convenience whenever necessary and, when this is no longer possible, making every reasonable effort to dissociate his personal actions from the movement and its objectives. It is one thing to put oneself above "rules" or "institutional restrictions" one no longer considers valid and to do this as an expression of personal fulfillment; in the long run, such an act of rebellion may even prove to be an exercise of prophetic witness; but when one assumes or accepts a position of identifiable leadership in a social movement, he should feel obliged to weigh the effect of his actions upon that movement and the spiritual investment of those members who may not yet share that particular prophetic vision.

It is here, perhaps, where the generation difference suggested earlier is most in evidence. Those involved in the World War II peace movement may be inclined to give too much weight to the demands of ritual performance and institutionally defined precepts than is true of younger people who have come to maturity in a time of rapid and extensive change in the Church's structure and expectations. Those of us who came out of our CPS camps and felt it important to keep a Catholic peace witness alive may have been too deeply bound to what might be called the "Caesar's wife syndrome." Simply stated, this involved governing our personal lives, and our religious behavior in particular in such a way as to avoid bringing discredit upon the movement. We saw to it that we met our Mass obligations, observed the fasts, either lived celibate lives or entered into and kept faithful to sacramental marriages. We failed of ten enough, of course, but we recognized those failures as failures. We, too, were frustrated by the unresponsiveness of the Church's leadership, the dull liturgies, the poor quality of the sermons; but these did not seem to be reason enough to "drop out" and shop around until we found some­ thing more congenial to our tastes. If we did, we no longer considered it proper to represent ourselves as spokesmen for the Catholic peace movement. If this is regarded today as "servility toward the system," it did not prevent our working to change that system—often enough with a remarkable degree of success. But we considered the Church important enough to work within the institutional structure and by the rules of that structure.

Times, practices and attitudes have changed so that what might now be dismissed as "instrumental conformity" has given way to more forthright (some, not so charitable, might say less hypocritical) expressions of personalized morality. The problem is that "doing one's own thing" spiritually frequently translates itself into a kind of elitism with the "liberated" Catholic all too ready to disregard the fact that he may be "giving scandal" to the majority of the Catholic community who—whether we like it or not—lag behind in their theological and liturgical conservatism. Again, if the Catholic peace movement is to get anywhere, this is the target audience we must reach and win over. Anything which is so likely to offend and alienate them has to be regarded as a serious weakness.

Let me not be misunderstood on this point. This is not a proposal to "read out" of the movement those who sincerely feel they can no longer be bound by restrictions they find outmoded or personally repressive. No one can arrogate to himself the power to purge or police the Catholic peace movement. All I would ask is that individuals who come into positions of prominence recognize that this might impose special obligations of self-discipline and, if they no longer feel willing or able to meet the standard behavioral criteria for (one is almost embarrassed to use the term) "the good Catholic," as defined by those we are trying to persuade, lower their profile as symbols or spokesmen for a movement which identifies itself as Catholic.

The objection might be raised that there is no good reason for having a specifically Catholic peace movement. I happen to believe there is, if only because, how­ ever much its influence may have diminished, the Roman Catholic Church remains an international body of considerable moral influence. The tremendous impact of the papacy under John XXIII testifies to that potential, and Paul VI has continued his predecessor's efforts toward peace on earth. American Catholics can have a significant role to play in moving the Church toward more effective service to the ideal of inter­ national peace and justice, but to do this will require that they be made aware of the opportunity and the obligation which is theirs.

That, as I see it, is the task for the Catholic peace movement as it moves into the post-Vietnam era. My assessment of its prospects is, on balance, favorable. I am convinced that its present strengths far outweigh the weaknesses I have outlined. This, too, is probably a matter of generational perspective. Twenty-five years ago I received my first invitation to address a Catholic audience in support of pacifism and conscientious objection and it was pretty much as a curiosity, as a spokesman for the "lunatic fringe," that I was there. Today those positions are eminently respectable; in­ deed, it is the just war tradition and its spokesmen who are clearly on the defensive. The next twenty-five years can show even greater progress if we who are pacifists do everything possible, collectively and individually, to maximize our impact.

I have already mentioned two organizations which may have the most to contribute in this respect. Both have ambitious programs in mind which would consolidate the gains that have been made and move on to create that "entirely new attitude” toward war called for by Vatican II. The Catholic Peace Fellowship, as already noted, performed a valuable service by providing draft-counseling when no other Catholic agency was prepared to support and guide young Catholics who were subject to service in a war they recognized as unjust and immoral. The CPF is presently engaged in preparing workshops on peace and non-violence to "bring the message" to Catholic schools and into the parish setting. At another level Pax Christi-USA is organizing its efforts to bring the American Catholic community into effective collaboration with the broader programs for peace and development that have been sponsored by Pax Christi International since its founding a quarter century ago. It is significant that even this faint and belated promise of American participation in the worldwide effort was enough to earn special mention in a speech given by Holland's Cardinal Alfrink in London some months ago. Needless to say, there is much to be accomplished by the new organization under its co-moderators Bishops Dozier and Gumbleton before the Cardinal's "particular satisfaction” is justified in fact.

Neither of these organizations can hope to fulfill its promise, however, if the Catholics who have given so much time and effort to the opposition to the Vietnam war "close up shop” and retire into inactivity. Both need funds; more than that, both need members who will assume a share of responsibility for the programs they have undertaken. If only a fraction of the defense funds raised for the various trials of the resistance could now be devoted to this admittedly less dramatic work; if the people who organized the meetings and joined in the demonstrations can now be persuaded to keep their peace commitment alive and active, there is a good chance that the scandals of the recent past which found German Catholics supporting Hitler's wars and American Catholics supporting their nation's unjust involvement in Indochina's civil wars need not be repeated in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World. Let us not forget that the danger of "other Vietnams" is a real and present danger. The time to deal with it is now, before the threat becomes a reality.

Not everyone in the Catholic peace movement will find the answer in organized activity of the kind represented by the CPF and Pax Christi. Some will continue to prefer giving individual witness, doing what they can through personal influence and example to make their families, friends and neighbors more aware of the Gospel message of peace and non-violence. Still others, as noted earlier, are already forming new com­ munities and creating new life-styles designed to give more perfect expression to their peace commitment. Whichever route one chooses to take, the important thing is for each to make as certain as he can that what has been accomplished in the past few years is not lost or diminished but, rather, becomes the starting point for new and even more impressive advances toward the full acceptance of the pacifist imperative of the Christian faith.

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About the Author

Gordon C. Zahn (1918–2007) was a frequent contributor to Commonweal, writing on conscientious objection and pacifism. He was an American Catholic conscientious objector to World War II, and taught sociology at the University of Massachusetts–Boston.

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