By JAMES O'GARA
Reproduced by courtesy of
HOW should Catholics react to the fighting in Vietnam? One thing is certain: "Christians of equal sincerity and equal devotion to the Gospel may honourably differ in their conclusions, especially when the problems are gigantic and important facts are themselves a matter of dispute.
"But certainly no Catholic who claims to find in the living teaching of the Church a source of moral guidance can be indifferent to his duty to care about the over-riding moral issues of modern warfare, as well as his duty to know and to follow the pronouncements of the Church on the moral limitations even of lawful self-defence . . ."
The quotation comes from the recent pastoral letter on "Peace and Patriotism" by Cardinal Shehan of Baltimore. It is, I think, one of the most significant pronouncements by a member of the American hierarchy; it is in line with the peacemaking efforts of Pope Paul, whom Cardinal Shehan had visited a few days before.
This is not to say that the pastoral tries to make a moral-political judgment for the individual citizen; instead, it does what is most necessary today simply by affirming that war must be subject to moral evaluation by the citizen, no matter what appeals to prejudice or nationalism may be made.
Throughout his letter Cardinal Shehan relies on the traditional Catholic teaching on the just war, as well as the declarations made by the Second Vatican Council on the subject.
THUS he places great stress on the necessity to avoid unjust means, even in a war for a just cause—a passage of particular concern for those who support the war in Vietnam: ". . the Catholic citizen who can conscientiously support his government in a struggle against aggression, whether direct or indirect, must do all he can to see that the struggle is carried on in morally acceptable ways ..."
This is a point that is often ignored. How many American voices, for instance, were raised against terror bombing by the allies in World War II? When Dresden and Tokyo were fire-bombed, killing non-combatants by the scores of thousands, how many Christians cried out against such actions?
In wartime, passions run high, and almost anything is thought to be justified if the national cause is felt to be right. Is the situation so different in Vietnam now?
Said Cardinal Shehan: "It is difficult for a nation to wage war with restraint and to nourish sentiments of peace at the same time. This is true particularly when its own casualties begin to mount and the conflict threatens to grow in duration and intensity. In such circumstances, those who argue against restraint and against keeping a nation's warmaking acts within moral bounds are likely to win an even greater hearing.
"Within our nation it seems that such harsh voices are growing stronger and are attempting to pressure our leaders into decisions which the Christian conscience could not endorse."
HERE Cardinal Shehan is clearly correct. The advocates of unlimited war are getting more and more vociferous, and apparently they have President Johnson's ear. A limited war, they say, is a contradiction in terms; we must go all-out to win.
In point of fact, though, a limited war is the right kind of war. The Church has always tried to civilise warfare, to impose moral restrictions on violence. The drift to unrestrained warfare, to total war, is a drift back to barbarism.
What are we to do in the face of efforts to go beyond that "which the Christian conscience could not endorse"? "If we are to resist such lethal appeals to our understandable impatience," Cardinal Shehan said, "we must constantly recall that only on moral grounds can our course in Vietnam be just. If our means become immoral, our cause will have been betrayed." As any war goes on, the tendency is strong to view it in strictly black and white terms. Americans are particularly prone to this; it is not so many years ago that our present allies in Germany and Japan were seen only as arch-villains.
Cardinal Shehan warned of this mentality in the present context: "Let us also avoid the narrowness of supposing that all the vice and bad will lie on one side of any major conflict and that all the virtue and goodwill lie on the other."
WARS should be fought for only one reason: to create peace. This is something we tend to forget. It is all too easy to wage war so savagely that it is next to impossible to create a lasting peace when the fighting stops.
It is commonplace to say that World War II was born in the peace treaties of World War I, and we can only hope that the seeds of World War III are not already sown. This is a danger even if one has good reason to fight in the first place.
On this point Cardinal Shehan wrote: "Assuming that our cause in Vietnam is just, our duties to mankind as a whole forbid us to indulge in passions of hatred and aggression . . . Even though our hands are embattled, then, our hearts must remain steadfastly peace-loving.
"Otherwise, at the peril of an escalation which could end in mutual annihilation, we may fail to be responsive to the possibilities of reasonable and honorable negotiations."
Again I don't see how anyone can argue with Cardinal Shehan on this point. I hope his words of warning are taken with the utmost seriousness, in Washington and all over the country.