e-mail us
At Jubilee for military, pope hails force for peace

NCR Staff

Catholicism’s ambiguous attitude toward armed force has rarely been thrown into sharper relief than this November in Italy, with the juxtaposition of a Vatican-sponsored Jubilee of the Military and Police Nov. 18-19 and an unofficial Jubilee of Conscientious Objectors staged as a kind of protest two weeks earlier.

If the former offered a benediction for the use of military power as an instrument of peace, the latter voiced stinging criticism both of that idea and of the church’s collusion with it. The protest was sponsored by Pax Christi International, a Catholic peace movement, and a variety of Italian peace groups.

The official Jubilee brought some 50,000 soldiers and their Catholic chaplains to Rome for penance services, a Way of the Cross and a papal Mass. Under the slogan “With Christ, in defense of justice and peace,” the gathering included troops from 49 nations, the overwhelming majority members of NATO and other Western allies. The armies of traditional Western foes, even nations with sizeable Catholic populations such as Cuba and Vietnam, were not represented.

During his homily in the Nov. 19 Mass, Pope John Paul II endorsed the concept of “humanitarian intervention,” meaning the use of military force to stop conflict between nations or to separate warring parties within a given nation. He told the uniformed personnel marshaled in St. Peter’s Square that such intervention “represents, after the failure of political forces and of instruments of non-violent defense, the final effort to stop the hand of the unjust aggressor.”

In a Saturday address to Polish soldiers, the pope referred to recent incursions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Lebanon and the Golan Heights as examples of such missions of “justice and peace.”

The unofficial “Jubilee of Conscientious Objectors,” meanwhile, took place in the northern hamlet of Barbiana, for 13 years the home of famed Italian priest-radical Don Lorenzo Milani (see page 7). Milani wrote a “letter to military chaplains” in 1965 challenging their support of the military system that became legendary in progressive European Catholic circles.

More than 500 gathered for the unofficial Jubilee at the remote northern Italian site. The date, Nov. 4, when Italy celebrates its “victory” in the First World War, was chosen by organizers to urge a “demilitarization” of the calendar. The organizers want to set aside a day to commemorate opposition to war along with all the dates that commemorate wars.

“Our church is rich in power, in prestige, in money, and at times it seems to pretend to join the choir of the rulers of this world,” said Massimo Toschi, a church historian and an adviser on human rights to the Tuscan regional government.

“It seems religious people are always ready to justify violence and the use of arms, always ready to put in parentheses the clear exhortations of the gospel,” Toschi said.

The objectors were not entirely abandoned by the Catholic hierarchy. Cardinal Silvano Piovanelli of Florence, sometimes included among the lists of papabile, or candidates to be the next pope, told the objectors that they are “the sentinels of the morning,” referring to the words of John Paul II during the mid-August World Youth Day.

“But the night is still long,” Piovanelli said, “and the struggle continues against injustice and misery on behalf of building a world livable for all.”

Ironically, John Paul II himself used the word sentinel during his Nov. 19 Mass to characterize the role of the soldier, saying military personnel are “called to defend the weak, protect the honest and favor the peaceful co-existence of peoples.”

Another bishop, Luigi Bettazzi of Ivrea, noted with regret at the gathering of conscientious objectors that “historically, the movement for peace has been on the political left and unconnected with the church.”

“The military system is the instrument that the rich and powerful utilize for conserving their political and economic power,” said Bettazzi, an emeritus bishop who now serves as president of Pax Christi [Italy]. “In its critique of this system, the church still has much ground to cover.”

Peace activist Alberto Trevisan recounted the story of the three years he spent in Italian prisons, from 1970 to 1973, for refusing military service. He passed much of this time in absolute isolation. “They isolated us because they understood our example might infect others,” he said.

Trevisan said he and other objectors were “assaulted” by Catholic military chaplains who attempted to convince them to drop their protest. “They wanted at all costs to convince me that conscientious objection was contrary to the gospel,” he said.

At the conclusion of their session the objectors issued a letter to the pope, asserting that “war can in no case be justified any longer.”

“We would like to see our churches be more daring, more open and ready to respond to the voice of the Spirit that alone is able to heal hatred and violence,” the letter said, “even if this means the loss of some privileges.”

The pope was joined in the Nov. 19 Mass by some 40 bishops and archbishops, most serving as heads of military dioceses, and more than 800 priests, largely drawn from the corps of military chaplains.

The theme of soldiers as guarantors of peace formed the Jubilee’s chief refrain. It was first voiced by Bishop Giuseppe Mani, head of the Italian military diocese, in an interview with the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference: “No one is more attached to peace than the military, since they are the ones who make war and hence they know it well,” Mani said.

The Italian branch of Pax Christi issued a statement Nov. 17 challenging this idea.

“History teaches that arms are always used for carrying death and subverting every possibility of reconciliation, rather than for defending peace,” the Pax Christi statement read.

“Neither can we forget that among the many countries represented on Sunday are armed forces that in the past have not been instruments of peace and justice. Indeed, the cries of their victims are still waiting to be heard.

“We nurture the hope that this Jubilee might constitute an opportune moment for revising the principles of just war and of legitimate defense, and for revitalizing with true courage the theology of peace and nonviolence,” the statement read.

Pax Christi also asked the pope to “reconsider the actual position of military chaplains as integral parts of the structures of armed forces.”

In his homily, Pope John Paul II told the military forces that they are “men and women of peace,” and expressed his “esteem” for the bishops and priests who serve the armed forces.

Despite papal support for the idea of “humanitarian intervention,” John Paul has at times been critical of the manner in which some interventions have been carried out. He has denounced, for example, both the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999 as well as the continuing US-led embargo against Iraq.

He has also used language that seemingly flirts with an absolute prohibition on war. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, the pope wrote: “No, never again war, which destroys lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war.”

Yet in the same year, in response to a journalist’s question about the war in the Persian Gulf, the pope said flatly: “I am not a pacifist.”

Archbishop Edmund O’Brien, head of the military archdiocese in the United States, called on participants in the Jubilee to remember their capacity for sin.

“We are a church of members who fall short,” he told a Nov. 18 penance service held at Santa Susanna, the American parish in Rome. “We’ve done terrible things such as the crusades and the inquisitions. We sin, we stumble, we live as if God didn’t exist,” O’Brien said, urging Catholics to take “new hope and new faith” from the sacrament of reconciliation.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000 [corrected 01/05/2001]