Conscientious Objection and Catholic Church Teaching

Con Object and Teachings Main Image

Conscience can be defined as an internal law that is not self-imposed, but is written in the heart and soul by God (paraphrased from The Church in the Modern World). Conscience calls a person to search for the truth, to love good, and to avoid evil. Conscience recognizes a loyalty to God and God’s teachings that is higher than loyalty to any person, institution (including the military), or nation-state.

People who follow their consciences and refuse to participate in wholesale killing are often called traitors to their country and to freedom and justice. But it is anything but unpatriotic to follow your conscience; many people with sincere love for their country and its people and a desire to see good come from it have refused to participate in killing in the name of their country.

For many, the teachings of Jesus are instrumental: in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laid out instructions for how to live and how to treat one another. Jesus called for a love that goes beyond family and friends to include even those considered enemies.

But can war, especially modern warfare with its potential for the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons as well as massive bombardment with conventional weapons, fit this example of love? Wars are no longer fought primarily on battlefields between members of armed forces; instead, today’s wars often target civilians and the infrastructure on which their lives depend (water systems, schools, hospitals, etc.) In fact, by the 1990s, civilians accounted for 90% of war casualties.

The Catholic Church explicitly condemns this type of warfare in The Church in the Modern World: "Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself [sic]. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation."

The recognition that war and the very structure of the military itself, with its emphasis on obeying orders rather than following conscience, violate the
teachings of Jesus has led many Christians to be among those who refuse to participate in war. The Catholic Church recognizes that people have a right to conscientious objection.

Catholic Church Teachings
Catholic Church doctrine for many centuries advanced "just war theory"- that wars could be conducted if they met certain conditions. During the twentieth century, when new horrors of absolute warfare haunted the planet and killed tens of millions, the Catholic Church acknowledged that Catholic faith could lead one to reject war. Numerous statements from the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops have asserted the right of conscientious objection for those for whom military participation would be a violation of "deeply held moral convictions."

U.S. military policy states that a conscientious objector must reject all war. The Catholic Church has gone further, calling for recognition of and legal protection for selective conscientious objectors: those who reject war or military participation under certain circumstances (such as serving in a capacity where one is responsible for using nuclear weapons) or a particular war (such as a war of aggression or one that does not meet just war criteria). (An example of the latter might be the potential war against Iraq, which the U.S. bishops in November 2002 said does not meet just war criteria (http://www.usccb.org/bishops/iraq.htm.)

The U.S. Bishops’ Declaration on Conscientious Objection and Selective Conscientious Objection (1971) states, "In the light of the Gospel and from an analysis of the church’s teaching on conscience, it is clear that a Catholic can be a conscientious objector to war in general or to a particular war ‘because of religious training and belief.’ . . .we should regard conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection as positive indicators within the Church of a sound moral awareness and respect for human life."

Over and over, this position has been reaffirmed, including in the bishops’ November 2002 statement on Iraq: "We also support those who seek to exercise their right to conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection."