’Peace on Earth – Peace in Vietnam’: The Catholic Peace Fellowship and Antiwar Witness, 1964-1976

Friday 8 December 2023

Moon, Penelope Adams. Journal of Social History 36, no. 4 (Summer, 2003): 1033-1051. doi.org/10.1353/jsh.2003.0108.

This article examines the history of the Catholic Peace Fellowship during the Vietnam War, which was founded by members of the pacifist Catholic Worker movement in 1964 as an organisation dedicated to opposing American involvement in the war, and supporting Catholic conscientious objectors. It has two distinct focusses, considering the significance of the CPF to both the broader anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and to the American Catholic Church. Its significance to this library is in its consideration of how competing visualisations of peace can exist within the same institution and social group, and how these may be affected by external social and political factors.

During the 1960s, America’s Catholic bishops were overwhelmingly supportive of its engagement in the war, as a result partly of the Church’s longstanding opposition to Communism, and partly of the desire of the Catholic Church, which had historically been marginalised in American social and political life, to appear fully integrated into American society. For the bishops as for many Catholic laypeople, supporting the Vietnam War was a means of demonstrating their patriotism as many Catholics moved, for the first time, into the American middle class. Even those Catholic clergymen who opposed the war were therefore usually prevented from speaking publicly against it, leaving the responsibility to lay organisations such as the CPF. The CPF therefore spent much of its effort in the early years of its existence in educating Catholics about the Church’s teaching on just war and the right of the individual to refuse to bear arms in the context of an unjust war. By the late 1960s, however, the group had become frustrated by the apparent failure of its educational work to have a significant impact on the opinions of American Catholics or on the course of the war, a frustration shared by much of the anti-war movement at this time. This motivated the CPF to take part in more direct activism which went beyond legal civil disobedience, being one of the first organisations to adopt the tactics of the public burning of draft cards and raiding of draft offices which would be extensively imitated by the wider movement. Moon notes the particular significance of the draft card burnings within a Catholic context – being simultaneously a direct action against the physical machinery of conscription, and a public statement of faith-based witness against the war’s immorality, the protests were integrated into a tradition of public prophetic witness going back to the Old Testament. She describes how this conception of the opposition to the war as specifically moral affected the broader anti-war movement’s conception of its own work.

Moon argues, however, that the CPF had more effect on the Catholic Church itself than on the anti-war movement of which it only ever formed a very small part. The CPF was founded during the Second Vatican Council, which was the most significant re-evaluation of the Church’s teaching and practice in centuries. The CPF managed to exert significant influence on the council itself, and was instrumental in convincing the Council to produce a statement condemning the nuclear arms race and legitimising Catholic conscientious objection in principle. At the same time, Moon considers the CPF’s ability to exist through the war years to be in large part a consequence of the changes which the Council brought to the Catholic Church, particularly in its promotion of the Catholic laity’s role in speaking for the Church on the public stage. The CPF’s confidence in leading Catholic opposition to the Vietnam War as a lay organisation – even taking the step, exceptionally for a lay movement at the time, of petitioning the Pope directly – is a reflection of the confidence that the Council gave to laypeople more generally. Furthermore, when in the 1970s the American bishops turned against the war and began to give official support to the promotion of nonviolence, the CPF’s leadership during the 1960s put it, and the laity in general, in a strong position to lead Catholic social and political action more generally.

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