Catholic Conscientious Objection during World War II

Friday 8 December 2023

McNeal, Patricia. Catholic Historical Review 61, no. 2 (Apr 01, 1975): 222.

This article examines the phenomenon of conscientious objection during the Second World War on the part of American Roman Catholics. It considers the relationship of this phenomenon to both the historical tradition of the Catholic Church and to its recent history within the USA, and the relation between the Catholic conscientious objectors and the hierarchy of the institutional Catholic Church.

McNeal begins by drawing attention to the radical change in the attitudes of American Catholics toward issues of war and peace over the course of the 20th century. Whereas at the start of the century there was virtually no existing tradition of Catholic pacifism in the USA – there were only four Catholics recorded as conscientious objectors in the USA during the First World War – by the time of the Vietnam War, Catholics constituted an unusually large proportion of conscientious objectors. Therefore, although during the Second World War pacifism remained a fringe position among American Catholics, it represented the first time that organised Catholic activity against conscription existed, and saw the birth of PAX, an offshoot of the Catholic Worker movement, which would take a significant role in Catholic anti-war activity during the Vietnam War decades later.

McNeal notes that the Catholic clergy overwhelmingly opposed attempts to introduce conscription in the years leading up to the Second World War, due to the traditional Catholic respect for individual conscience; however, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the American entry into the war, the American bishops firmly supported it. Many members even of the pacifist Catholic Worker movement would fight in the war themselves even while supporting the right of others to conscientiously object. McNeal describes the practical difficulties of setting up infrastructure for objecting Catholics who were not part of the historic peace churches, such as the Quakers and Mennonites, which were able to fund labour camps for alternative service. Furthermore, those Catholics who did oppose the war were obliged to work out a model of Catholic pacifism which had not hitherto existed. Some made use of the Thomist theory of Just War, which had long been endorsed by the Church, to argue either that its requirements could never be met in modern warfare or, in a more limited way, to argue that the American military was not conducting itself in a manner such as would make the war just. Others, especially within the Catholic Worker movement, took a more absolutist position which denied the possibility of just war in principle, often basing their argument on a reinterpretation of the Sermon on the Mount as it is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Either way, these visions of peace tended to be closely integrated into the existing tradition of the Catholic religion; the article depicts an important example of how visualisations of peace can change within a highly systematised and institutionalised tradition.

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