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Warring over military on campus

Special Report Writer
Notre Dame, Ind.

Standing along both sides of the walkway leading to the Loftus Center at the University of Notre Dame, they looked like an unorthodox honor guard. These 30 students, all members of the school’s Pax Christi chapter, were informally attired in jeans and jackets or sweatshirts, and they held homemade wooden crosses.

In protest against the ROTC parade filing between them, the Pax Christi members had come to pray, to listen to brief talks and to sing. They sang about “speaking truth to power” and how “blessed are the peacemakers.”

The demonstration marked an ongoing clash of Christian values over war and peace that dates to the earliest centuries of Christianity -- a clash that resulted in St. Augustine’s principles of just war in the early fifth century, rationalizing the role of armies despite the pacifist teachings of Jesus.

In this latest emergence of the conflict, a seemingly endless array of young women and men, members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Notre Dame, all dressed in parade blue, olive or dazzling white, walked between lines of peace activists and entered the building. In stark contrast to the simple crosses Pax Christi members held, some ROTC members carried rifles, some flags, and some ceremonial swords. None spoke to Pax Christi members, and most looked straight ahead as if running (or walking) a gauntlet.

The Pax Christi group was protesting on this sunny afternoon, April 18, against the annual presidential review of all the university’s ROTC cadets (341 members this year). Their disagreement ran along these lines:

  • Notre Dame, the most heavily endowed Catholic educational institution in history, is overly friendly with and dependent on the Pentagon.
  • Notre Dame president Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy was about to give official approval to the ROTC program.
  • ROTC students at the school are under no obligation to take courses on Catholic just war tradition or other ethical issues connected with the military.

“The Department of Defense has been given a carte blanche on this campus,” said Michael Griffin, a leader of the Pax Christi chapter on campus. Griffin is a seminarian preparing to become a priest of the Holy Cross, the religious order that sponsors Notre Dame. “The university is failing utterly to assist those students in developing a Catholic conscience on war-related matters.”

In a letter addressed to ROTC members and published in the school newspaper on the day of the presidential review, Pax Christi said, “You are being trained for the United States military, and this organization has consistently disregarded teachings of Jesus and of the church. Some of the historic examples: Pope Paul VI called the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ‘a butchery of untold proportions,’ and Pope John Paul II prayed ‘never again war, an adventure without return, never again war, a spiral of death and violence’ … The blessing that occurs with this ceremony … implies that the ROTC is -- at minimum -- in harmony with the mission of the Catholic church.”

Too often, concluded the letter, the U.S. military has “fought on the side of injustice, against the poor and powerless.”

The Pax Christi chapter had hoped to make a more dramatic presentation of its views than this brief interface at the Loftus Center door. The presidential review was originally scheduled to be held outdoors in a large, grassy area near the football stadium, punctuated with a military jet flyby. Griffin and his associates had planned to sit in cruciform and recite the rosary in the path of the parade, forcing marching cadets to walk around -- or over -- them.

But after school authorities learned about the plan, the site was shifted just two days before the event to the indoor arena where disruptions could more easily be controlled.

Dennis Moore, university director of public relations, cited unseasonably cold and rainy weather as the reason for the move. However, on review day, there was scarcely a cloud in the sky. The temperature was in the low 60s.

Pax Christi members viewed the move indoors as a measure of their protest’s success.

During the last three years, Pax Christi has increased its visibility at Notre Dame. Its emergence is usually attributed to a talk on campus by Fr. Frank Cordaro, veteran peace activist. He challenged a student, Sheila McCarthy, to do something about the ROTC’s considerable presence (the largest ROTC presence at any private university in the country). A core group of about 30 began a weekly public rosary for peace. The group has also sponsored public “dialogues” about Catholicism and the military, drawing up to 100 students, including some ROTC members.

“They’re not debates,” said Griffin. “They’re conversations.”

At the protest April 18, McCarthy, a theology major, said school officials are quick to point out that Notre Dame houses, in addition to a large ROTC program, an International Institute for Peace Studies. But the two do not balance out, in her view, because the cadets do not get practical exposure to just war ethics.

“If the just war tradition is presented merely as a development in war ethics without a discussion of how it would be applied directly into policy … if cadets are not taught how to refuse participation in an unjust war or how to refuse an unjust order, then a credible just war discipline is not being developed.”

McCarthy cited the statement of Fr. Ted Hesburgh, former Notre Dame president, that the school’s ROTC graduates are, in fact, “Christianizing the military.” She suggested that the ROTC presence, instead of Christianizing the military, actually “militarizes a Christian campus.”

Although Griffin would like to see the entire ROTC enterprise shut down at Notre Dame in favor of a training program in nonviolent peacemaking, he said the immediate goal of Pax Christi is to press for required education in just war theory for ROTC students. It is, he realizes, a goal not easily achieved.

Moore, the public relations director, said the school’s relationship with the military was solidified during World War II when the Navy “kept Notre Dame from closing down” by sending a host of officer recruits there for education. The relationship continues, he said, because “training military personnel in a Catholic environment with opportunities for ethical formation should serve as a corrective for the excesses they might encounter” in critical situations.

Capt. Patrick Casey, commanding officer of the Navy unit at the university, said suggestions that students preparing for military service need to be bound by special requirements is demeaning and insulting and, if formally proposed, would encounter the strongest opposition.

“Notre Dame and the Catholic faith believe American military service is an honorable profession.” Any attempt to require ROTC students to take certain courses on military or war ethics would be “a stupid idea,” he said. “Are you going to require political science majors and history majors to take such a course? It’s the politicians who make the decisions about war. We [the military] didn’t decide to go into Bosnia.”

“That’s just the problem,” commented Benjamin Peters, a Pax Christi activist working toward a master of divinity degree. “Do we want conscientious soldiers who make solid moral decisions or do we want mindless creatures who follow orders blindly because the politicians make all the decisions?”

During the presidential review, Notre Dame cadets paraded to the tune of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Only about 100 regular students witnessed the event, some from Pax Christi. On the reviewing stand, Malloy gave a brief talk, less a blessing than a prayer that the cadets will become “emissaries of peace.” Patriotism is a virtue, he reminded them, “but it is not the highest virtue.”

Afterward, though most ROTC students politely declined to talk about Pax Christi, one, Cadet Major Casey Bouton, a theology major, said, “I respect them very much, very much. We just have different perspectives. As a future Catholic military officer,” he added, “I believe I can set a good Christian example for those I work with.”

Malloy told NCR he respects the people in both groups. “After all,” he said, “the purpose of a modern university is sharing and discussing different opinions.”

He was decidedly unenthusiastic about requiring ROTC students to have a special grounding in Catholic ethical principles. “I want to maximize their potential to the fullest,” he said, “and I believe 50 percent [of ROTC students] do take courses voluntarily that touch on these issues and expose them to the wisdom of our tradition. But by temperament I’m not inclined to add requirements.”

Griffin said that the protest, while not as successful as originally planned, did achieve several modest goals. “We made them move the review inside,” he said, “and they didn’t get to fly the airplane over.” The protesters left the scene for Mass and dinner -- and a sharing of ideas on how to push the envelope a little farther next time.

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001