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Priest’s letter condemns military

NCR Staff

For the site of their alternative Jubilee, Italy’s conscientious objectors chose the tiny northern village of Barbiana, so obscure that it doesn’t show up on most maps. Yet the spot looms large in the country’s mental geography because of its association with a priest who was, in many ways, the Italian equivalent of the Berrigan brothers: Don Lorenzo Milani.

Like the famous U.S. peace activists Philip and Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Milani, who died in 1967, was a fierce critic of the country’s political and military establishment and a thorn in the side of church authorities. Born into a high-profile Florentine family in 1923 (his full name was Lorenzo Carlo Domenico Milani Comparetti) and ordained in 1947, Milani was made pastor of the tiny parish in Barbiana in 1954 in an attempt by the bishop to lower his profile. Milani had become controversial for founding a “popular school” to teach young people to question authority, and for only grudgingly accepting the Catholic hierarchy’s demand to back the conservative Christian Democrats in the 1948 election against Italian communists.

Instead of slipping into obscurity after his exile, Milani continued to teach and organize from Barbiana. It was here that he wrote his famous “Letter to the Military Chaplains,” defending the right of Italians to refuse military service. The letter was prompted by a statement of the Catholic military chaplains of Italy’s Tuscany region, who, on Feb. 12, 1965, called conscientious objection “foreign to the commandments of Christian love” and a type of “cowardice.”

Milani was charged with inciting treason for advocating refusal to be enlisted, but was acquitted in 1966. Milani did not live to see Italy adopt a law permitting conscientious objection. It was passed in 1972.

Excerpts from Milani’s “Letter to Military Chaplains” of February 1965:

“I don’t want to discuss the idea of ‘country’ in itself. But if you have the right to divide the world into Italians and strangers, then I say to you, in this sense, I do not have a country. Instead I claim the right to divide the world into the disinherited and oppressed on one side, the privileged and oppressors on the other. The former are my countrymen, the latter my strangers. And if you have the right, without being corrected by the curia, to teach that Italians and strangers may licitly and even heroically butcher one another, then I claim the right to say that the poor can and must combat the rich. At least in the choice of means I am better than you. The arms that you approve are horrible machines for killing, mutilating and destroying, for creating widows and orphans. The only weapons I approve are noble and bloodless: the strike and the ballot.

“In this letter I don’t want to refer to the gospel. It is entirely too easy to demonstrate that Jesus was against all violence and that not even for his own person did he accept the idea of ‘legitimate defense’...

“If we recognize that the story of our army is entirely woven from offenses to other countries, you have to clarify for us in these cases whether our soldiers should have obeyed or should have objected, based on what their consciences told them. Next you have to explain who offends our country and its honor more: those who object or those who, obeying, render our country odious to the rest of the civilized world?

“But enough with abstract and generic ideas. Let us descend to the level of the practical. Tell us exactly what you teach the soldiers. Obedience at any cost? What if the order is to bomb civilians, or to commit an act of reprisal against an unarmed village, or the summary execution of resisters, or the use of atomic weapons or bacteriological or chemical weapons, or torture, or the execution of hostages, or killing a few of your own soldiers in order to keep the rest in line, or launching an obvious war of aggression, or squashing a popular uprising, or the repression of popular assemblies?

“Obviously these acts and many more are the daily bread of every war. When these things have happened right before your eyes, you have either lied or kept silent. Or do you want us to believe that you have sometimes spoken the truth to the faces of your ‘superiors,’ risking prison or even death? The fact that you are still alive and rising in the system is a sign that you have not objected to anything. In fact, you have demonstrated in your communication that you do not have the most elementary notion of the concept of conscientious objection. …

“Wait before you hurl insults at those who object. Perhaps tomorrow you will discover that they are prophets. Certainly the place of the prophets is always prison, but that does not mean it is good to be the ones who put them there.

“If you were to say to us that you chose the mission of military chaplain to help the wounded and the dying, we could respect your idea. Even Gandhi did the same as a youth. The more mature Gandhi, however, strongly condemned his juvenile error. Have you read his life?

“But if you say to us that the refusal to defend oneself and one’s property according to the example and the commandment of the Lord is ‘foreign to the Christian commandment of love,’ then you do not understand the Spirit of which you are made. What language are you speaking? How are we supposed to understand you if you use words without weighing them? If you do not wish to honor the suffering of the objectors, at least keep silent!

“We pray for those unhappy ones who, without fault, poisoned by the propaganda of hate, sacrifice themselves for the mistaken idea of ‘country.’ They trample, without even realizing it, every noble human ideal.”

Excerpts are from L’obbedienza non è piu una virtù (Obedience Is No Longer a Virtue)(Stampa Alternativa, 1998). Translation by NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000