Peace eludes us. A few weeks after the 9/11 attack, the United States invaded Afghanistan – whose Taliban leaders were giving safe haven to the al-Qaeda terrorists. Ever since then, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in these wars, if not more. Untold more have been maimed or displaced.
War of unprecedented horror threatens the Korean penninsula
Now we face the more ominous specter of a possible nuclear confrontation on the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un has threatened to attack the United States and its allies with nuclear-armed missiles. Speaking to the United Nations in September, President Trump responded: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
The indiscriminate destruction of entire cities or areas with their population is a crime against God and man
The Second Vatican Council has framed the Catholic response to both leaders’ threats:
The men of our time must realize that they will have to give a somber reckoning for their deeds of war. … [T]his most holy synod makes its own the condemnations of total war already pronounced by recent popes, and issues the following declaration: Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.
Guadium et spes ¶ 80.
I do not suggest that there is a moral equivalency between the leadership of North Korea and that of the United States. Whatever one’s opinion of the Trump Administration, it cannot be compared to the totalitarian regime that controls North Korea. The latter stops at nothing, including murder, to retain power. Nevertheless, to contemplate the destruction of an entire country, whether by nuclear weapons or otherwise, is morally unacceptable.
The right of self-defense does not authorize total war
Certainly, the Church acknowledges that the government of a country “threatened by armed, unjust aggression must defend their people. This includes defense by armed force, if necessary, as a last resort.” The Challenge of Peace (CP)¶ 75. But a government’s duty to defend its people does not authorize unlimited war. CP ¶ 283. Moreover, “[n]o Christian can rightfully carry out orders or policies deliberately aimed at killing noncombatants.” CP ¶ 148. The Church’s teaching is clear:
Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a … nation … must be condemned as a mortal sin.
Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶ 2313.
Pray for peace
The bishops of the United States encourage us to turn to prayer to “seek the wisdom to begin the search for peace and the courage to sustain us as instruments of Christ’s peace in the world.” CP ¶ 293.
The Communion Rite expresses the Church’s plea for peace
“Nowhere is the Church’s urgent plea for peace more evident in the liturgy than in the Communion Rite.” CP ¶ 295. After the Our Father, in which together we ask that God “deliver us from evil”, the priest continues: “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days ….”
Therefore, we encourage every Catholic to make the sign of peace at Mass an authentic sign of our reconciliation with God and with one another. This sign of peace is also a visible expression of our commitment to work for peace as a Christian community. We approach the table of the Lord only after having dedicated ourselves as a Christian community to peace and reconciliation.
CP ¶ 295.
Prayers to Saint Martin of Tours
Today we observe Veterans Day. Originally called Armistice Day, it commemorated the end of fighting in World War I. Also today we celebrate Saint Martin of Tours’ feast day. This coincidence is fitting, as Martin is the patron saint of soldiers and conscientious objectors. He left the Roman army, telling Caesar, “I am the soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.” Peace eludes us. But we can look to Saint Martin as an example of Christian duty. Saint Martin intercedes for all men and women called to issue, or carry out, an unlawful order. Pray to him that they may have the courage and wisdom to make a Christian response.