VATICAN CITY – On the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq, three U.S. Catholic peace activists paid a discreet but significant visit to the Vatican.
The officers of the Indiana-based Catholic Peace Fellowship were in Rome in mid-March to promote the issue of conscientious objection to war.
They didn’t know what kind of reception they’d get from Vatican experts, but after a week of talks and meetings, they left feeling like they’d received a sympathetic hearing.
“It’s been a miraculous trip,” said Joshua Casteel. “We’ve received great support and open ears here. It’s encouraging to see that we are part of a tradition that’s very sensitive to peace issues.”
Mr. Casteel, who works as conscientious objector liaison for the fellowship, served in an Army intelligence unit in Iraq in 2004 and was an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison. After concluding that systematic torture was being used against mostly innocent people and that his own participation in the war was compromising his Christian witness, Mr. Casteel applied for and received conscientious objector status and left the Army.
When Mr. Casteel met Pope Benedict XVI briefly March 14, he told the pope that his writings and teachings had helped him find a path to nonviolence. The pope listened carefully, then thanked Mr. Casteel and told him he would pray for him.
Deacon Tom Cornell, Catholic Peace Fellowship co-founder, and Michael Griffin, the organization’s director of education, arranged the trip to Rome to promote more visible backing of conscientious objection by the church hierarchy.
“Part of our mission is to help Catholics see that conscientious objection is part of Catholic tradition,” Mr. Griffin said.
Mr. Griffin and his colleagues said it was disappointing that Catholic leaders have not highlighted the option of conscientious objection, despite the fact that more than 25 percent of today’s U.S. armed forces are Catholic.
The group was heartened last fall when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the new Vatican secretary of state, gave his inaugural address to the diplomatic corps and specifically included conscientious objection as one of the “paths to peace” supported by the Vatican.
The three activists dropped off a thank-you letter for Cardinal Bertone in a meeting with a Secretariat of State official, who expressed interest in their campaign. The official made it clear, however, that while the Vatican might address conscientious objection in a general way at the diplomatic level, it’s primarily up to local or national bishops to deal with it as a pastoral issue.
Another request raised by Deacon Cornell, Mr. Griffin and Mr. Casteel was that the Vatican take a new look at the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on war and conscientious objection.
The catechism notes that public authorities should provide for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience. But it says the main responsibility for evaluating the conditions of a just war “belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”
Mr. Griffin said that wording seems to imply that public authorities will be deciding a war’s morality. It gives too little weight to an individual’s responsibility to evaluate the legitimacy of war in his or her own conscience, he said.
The delegation discussed this with U.S. Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, who heads a Vatican office that deals with matters of conscience. They also talked about “selective conscientious objection,” which the fellowship considers crucial for Catholics.
At present, the United States grants conscientious objector status only to someone who refuses to participate in any war. But selective conscientious objection, in which a soldier judges the morality of a particular war, is actually a better application of the “discernment of conscience” required of Catholics, Mr. Griffin said.
The group also met with members of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the papal preacher. In general, Mr. Griffin said, they found the Vatican highly sympathetic to the call of conscience in matters of war, but wary about church leaders telling Catholics not to participate in a war.
The issue of civil disobedience by those who cannot in conscience follow orders of government or military leaders at times sparked lively debate, Mr. Griffin said.
“But there was clarity, especially at the Secretariat of State, that one must never do what one believes to be wrong, even if such action is legal or ordered by military superiors,” Mr. Griffin said.
Coincidentally, during their stay in Rome the Vatican issued a strong statement supporting conscientious objectors – but the reference was to pro-life issues like abortion, not serving in war. The Vatican said Catholic health care professionals have an obligation to refuse to participate “in any medical intervention or research that foresees the destruction of human life.”
Deacon Cornell said his organization supports that position.
“We promote a seamless garment kind of ethic” that opposes abortion, war and a wide spectrum of other attacks on human life and justice, he said.
Deacon Cornell first came to Rome in the 1960s with Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and U.S. Catholics were in the front lines of the anti-war movement.
That is not as true today, Deacon Cornell said, probably because of the shifting demographics of the Catholic population.
One way the universal church teaches is by selecting models of sainthood. With that in mind, the peace fellowship delegation paid a call on the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, to inquire about progress in the cause of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian Catholic farmer who was executed as a conscientious objector to service in the army of Adolf Hitler.
Mr. Jagerstatter had a wife and three daughters, and many, including a priest and a bishop, advised him to think of his family and forget about resisting the military machine. He was also told he should follow the legitimate political authorities who had responsibility for such decisions. But Mr. Jagerstatter refused to serve, and after a military trial in 1943 he paid the price: He was beheaded. Before being executed, he wrote: “I am convinced that it is best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life.”
The Catholic Peace Fellowship believes the beatification and canonization of Mr. Jagerstatter would send a strong signal to Catholics everywhere on the issue of conscientious objection.