Conscience in War – Social Justice

This entry is part two of a series I am writing for Sojourners’ blog, “God’s Politics.”  This was my original draft, which is more heavily cited and focuses maybe disproportionately on Catholicism.  The Sojo post for this entry can be found HERE and the first installment (an intro to SCO) can be found HERE.

As an undergrad, Christian social justice was the focus of my final, capstone course.  A self-defined practicum, the course granted academic credit for helping a couple guys found Honolulu’s first Catholic Worker, Saint Damien House of Hospitality.  As we did that, my professor, a Roman Catholic, guided me through reading the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, as well as many Papal social encyclicals and Dorothy Day’s autobiography.

Because of this, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has been the central lens through which I understand Christian social justice.  This can have a limiting effect, since I have a less developed understanding of Protestant perspectives on social justice (though I have accumulated over a decade of experience in various such denominations).  However, the plethora of Peace Fellowships testifies to the rich history of social justice from which the universal Church draws.

The most important contributions of CST to the conversation on SCO are the twin imperatives of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person.  Sanctity of life is likely familiar to many of us already, so I will not go too deeply into why such sanctity extends even to our enemies.  It is for this reason that war is to always be a last resort.  The importance of Just War teaching itself cannot be underplayed, and I will go into greater detail in a later post about how contingent pacifism (one way of looking at SCO) is synonymous with Just War.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the authorized teachings of the Roman Catholic tradition, draws from centuries of social justice experience, commenting broadly on human dignity in Article 6, Section 1, Part 3, titled simply “Moral Conscience.”  Paragraph 1782 specifically affirms that people have “the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions” (emphasis my own).

The official teaching of the largest single denominational body in the United States suggests that “autonomy of conscience” be recognized as a right exercised personally, that to deny such a right directly affects the human dignity of the person so denied.  Just as the President must practice moral judgment, so too must the individual believer.  And this is not just what the Catholic Church believes; many other denominations have much to say as well.

Autonomy of conscience is based on the very nature of the dignity of the human person, since the refusal of moral agency even by a legitimate authority is to impose psychological slavery upon them. American Christians interested in social justice have been struggling against this imposition since at least 1971, when the petition of Louis Negre, a young Catholic draftee, reached the Supreme Court.  Negre was a French immigrant whose family opposed the French War in Indochina (we call it simply “Vietnam”) and, ironically, fled France to escape conscription.  The Supreme Court ruled against Negre in US v. Gillette, but the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the regional Catholic hierarchy, reaffirmed, seven months after the Gillette decision, a position stated in 1968, that there was needed

a modification of the Selective Service Act making it possible for selective conscientious objectors to refuse to serve in wars they consider unjust, without fear of imprisonment or loss of citizenship, provided they perform some other service to the human community.

In case you think this might be some quaint but unrealistic teaching several decades old, the same concern for human life and dignity prompted this call just three years ago:

There is a moral obligation to deal with the human, medical, mental health and social costs of military action. Our nation must also make provisions for those who in conscience exercise their right to conscientious objection or selective conscientious objection.

SCO is both a moral and social imperative.  Many denominations, not the least of which being the largest faith community in the United States, recognize this to be the case.  Beyond being merely an issue of legalistic or juridical importance, this is an issue that draws directly from our history of progressive social justice for and by the people.  The Church has led the way before and we can do it again.

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