On January 14, Bishop Robert Barron was inspired by the recent movie 1917 to publish an essay on war and baptism on his Word on Fire blog. The Bishop (proclaimed by Francis Cardinal George as one of the the Church's best messengers) wrote that Christians on both sides of World War 1 forgot they were baptized into the Mystical Body of Christ and instead slaughtered each other and millions of civilians. In his essay Bishop Barron asked:
How many Christians of that time raised their voices in protest, refused to cooperate with the folly of the war, placed their religious identities above their ethnic or national identities?
then followed with: "Those questions ... answer themselves". Bishop Barron did a wonderful job of contrasting Christianity and war but must not have done much research on the peacemakers of that time. Two of the Friends of Franz and Ben have written to the Bishop to inform him that Pope Benedict XV and several US Catholics including Benjamin Salmon were among those who embraced their religious identity and refused to cooperate in the slaughter. Their letters are copied below.
TO: Bishop Robert Barron
FROM: Fr. Bernard Survil
DATE: Jan 15, 2020
RE: “1917 and Remembering Who We Are”
“…one of the causes of the collapse of religion in Europe, and increasingly in the West generally, was the moral disaster of the First World War, which was essentially a crisis of Christian identity. Something broke in the Christian culture, and we've never recover-ed from it. If their Baptism meant so little to scores of millions of combatants in that terrible war, then what, finally, was the point of Christianity? And if it makes no concrete difference, then why not just leave it behind and move on? “ Bp. Robert Barron
Bishop Barron, was it the movie “1917” that inspired your January 15, 2020 column? Recall how the 100th anniversary of that World War saw a deluge of articles and media specials on the Great War, The War to end all wars.
Was it not Pope Benedict XV whose Nov 1, 1914 encyclical “Appealing for Peace” that alerted the Catholic World to “the suicide of civilized Europe?” A quick reference to Wikipedia provides more quotes from Benedict’s pen about the horrors developing even then. Does it have to take the visuals of a current movie to awaken and disturb contemporary consciences? Yet, almost three years after Pope Benedict published Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum addressed to the “Primates, archbishops, bishops and other local ordinaries in communion with the Apostolic See,” Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore convened some 65 of his fellow American bishops to a meeting at Catholic University to organize the National Catholic War Council to pledge the full cooperation of U.S. Catholics to President Wilson’s declaration of war. That meeting sadly foretold what the German and Austrian hierarchy would do by tolerating a repeat of WWI within just two decades.
So where can one turn to if our bishops themselves become a part of the war machine? Isn’t that what the Archdiocese of Military Services did during the Iraq-Afghanistan wars and is still ready to do in America’s endless wars?
Answer: Look to two lay Catholics ( the baptized ) with just an 8th grade education but versed in the Gospels and an ear most attentive to their consciences.
One whose story is making the rounds in the movie A HIDDEN LIFE is Austrian farmer Franz Jagerstatter, beatified in 2007 for having done the right thing during World War II when his archbishop counseled him to take up his military duty for the sake of his wife and children. I saw it at the AMC theater on East Illinois St, Downtown Chicago on December 11th. Saying no to killing, Franz paid with his life, when celibates who are truly free of family obligations, failed to step up.
Another Catholic layman, born and raised in Denver, responded as Pope Benedict XV hoped the Catholic hierarchy would have by writing President Wilson that he would not train to kill his fellow Catholics in Germany. That was Ben Salmon, whose writings and witness are told in detail at the website: www.bensalmon.org. Ben was no celibate, as are we who are free of family obligations to be able to risk all.
But more importantly, Bishop Barron, is that Ben died in Chicago in 1932 and is buried in Mt. Carmel Cemetery just a five-minute walk from the mausoleum where most of Chicago’s bishops are buried. Robert Ellsberg, the publisher of Orbis Books said this about Ben in a comment found on the above website:
Ben Salmon was one of the great witnesses to the Gospel message of nonviolence. Far in advance of official Catholic teaching, he anticipated the teaching of Vatican II on the right of conscientious objection, and prepared the way for such voices as Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, Servant of God Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Pope Francis. His beatification would enlighten the American Catholics and make an important contribution to advancing the peace mission of the church.
Ellsberg is one of some 800 who are petitioning Cardinal Cupich to initiate the process for the beatification of Ben Salmon. You, Bishop, as one who is from Chicago, a former rector of the Mundelein Seminary, who now finds himself writing about “a crisis of Christian identity” while denying he is “advocating pacifism,” would still do well to be among those who welcome Ben’s Christian pacifism. For if it had been embraced not just by a Ben Salmon but by our U.S. bishops it would at least have reduced to some degree the horrific carnage occurring in Europe rather than adding to it.
Arguments from proportionality in bellum are always too late, be it the USCCB’s in 1971 after the Vietnam War had been raging for years, or looking backward from 2020 to 1917. Resisting evil non-violently from the get-go, as did Ben Salmon and John the Baptist has to be declared the pre-eminently saintly way to living out one’s Christian identity.
To conclude I invite you to endorse The Petition to Cardinal Cupich, www.bensalmon.org/letter with a comment as lengthy as needed to make clear your intent.
January 19, 2020
Dear Bishop Barron,
Our parish, Mary Mother of Mercy in Trumansburg, NY is currently using your “Catholicism” study series. I have heard your writings recommended several times in homilies.
I am writing in response to your column in the Boston Pilot about Baptism and WWI. I have enclosed some related writings I hope you will find time to read.
Clearly, what “broke in the Christian culture” actually happened 1700 years ago at the time of Constantine and the beginning of the just war era of Christianity. Constantine made the new religion legal in his empire in the Edict of Milan with these words, “Let this be so in order that the divine grace which we have experienced in such manifold ways, may always remain loyal to us, and continue to bless us in all that we undertake, for the welfare of the empire.” Thus, the first “Christian” just war theory (CJWT) was written by a pagan emperor before Ambrose, Augustine or Aquinas proposed their exceptions to the Gospel Law of Agape. Before Constantine subverted the earliest practice of the Church, one could not be in the Roman army if he were a Christian. Within 100 years, one could not be in the army unless he were a Christian. Whether CJWT was applied, misapplied or ignored, as was usual, Constantine’s version has always been the operative reality.
CJWY itself is “what we have never recovered from”.
After watching the “1917” film, you assure your readers you had not become so unnerved as to naively advocate pacifism (or Gospel Nonviolence). Instead, you invoke the “in bellum” CJWT principle of proportionality. However, a proposed war has to first meet all the “ad bellum” criteria, then all the in bellum criteria, all the time, in order to be “just”. CJWT has no basis in Jesus or the Gospel and has never been taught with the authority of an encyclical or Church council. It is accepted with perhaps the lowest level of certainty and authority. A Catholic does not have to believe in it. It is a mistake to give CJWT precedence over the Gospel.
John Pollard recently wrote about WWI: “Catholics on both sides invoked “just war” theory to justify the conflict, but Benedict suggested [my emphasis] in his encyclicals that no war, including a total war, could be considered just.” Benedict never issued an ex cathedra teaching based on the Gospel to forbid Catholic participation. Kaisers and presidents exercised a prerogative to judge their own cause, and they chose Constantine’s version of the theory. Pope Francis, who has said we are in the midst of WWIII being fought piecemeal, still has not exorcised CJWT from the Church.
A strange variation on just war theory, employed by the US bishops during the War in Iraq, is the subject of the enclosure written by Robert Waldrop. Only one bishop ordinary, John Botean, fulfilled his responsibility to teach with clarity and authority about that war. (enclosed)
You ask, “How many Christians of that time raised their voices in protest, refused to cooperate with the folly of war, placed their religious identities above their ethnic or national identities?” I too lament how few resisted the war. All the more reason to appreciate the courageous witness to the nonviolent Jesus of those who did resist, at great personal cost, on the basis of their baptismal commitment. In the US, there were some 4000 Conscientious Objectors (CO’s), mostly from the historic peace churches which had never accepted CJWT and been terribly persecuted by Protestants and Catholics in Europe. Of these, only a dozen were Catholic and totally without support from their religious leaders. Most notable of the Catholic resisters was Benjamin Joseph Salmon of Denver whose story is told in the enclosed issue of the Sign of Peace. One hundred years ago today, Ben Salmon was still in a military prison for his stand. Near the end of his incarceration, he became the first US Catholic to write a complete refutation of CJWT. He may have been the first Catholic to ever do so. Even those saints who lived after Constantine and Ambrose and who did not believe that any killing could be done in the name of Jesus, did not leave a written refutation of CJWT, as far as I can tell.
You place much responsibility on the combatants for failing to understand the Church’s theology related to Baptism. We should note that the US bishops first organized themselves as the National Catholic War Council (NCWC) to support, encourage and coordinate Catholic participation in WWI. Even after witnessing the scandal of millions of Christians killing each other over several years, they pledged their patriotism and support for the president and the war. They considered the CO’s to be traitors. Cardinal Gibbons wrote in a letter to his fellow bishops, “This war offers us, indeed, the greatest opportunity in all history of inspiring our men with religion.” (!) The letter was reprinted in the liturgy booklet for the Opening Mass of the USCCB’s November 2017 meeting with every expectation that the bishops would support US war-making for the next hundred years, it seemed.
Few now realize the great lengths the US bishops went to in order to support the “war effort”, making it all the harder for the resisters. Some are described in the enclosure titled, “An Invitation to Rethink 100 Years of Catholic Support for War”. The Handbook of the NCWC is an astounding record of support for WWI that every bishop should be familiar with. The difference between Ben’s witness and the bishops’ approach explains the shocking degree to which militarism has now penetrated our Church in the US at every level. Gospel nonviolence remains a non-thought for our bishops. You cannot expect the laity to reject war on the basis of CJWT principles or theology when no national body of bishops has ever done so authoritatively for a war of their country’s choosing. Yet, it almost seems that you are advocating CJWT be raised from its lowly official status to become part of the Rite of Baptism since you dismiss Gospel nonviolence, the other, older part of our Moral Tradition that deals with the “moral disaster” of war.
The mission of the Messiah, as described in the first reading in our lectionary, was to provide instruction and reveal a path that could lead to ending the great evils of war and militarism, if followed. There is so much evidence in the Gospel that Jesus understood this to be his mission! From the heavenly voice at his baptism quoting the first line of the Song of the Suffering Servant, to Jesus’ refusal of Satan’s proffered gift of worldly power, to his proclamation in the Nazareth synagogue after which he told of God’s favor once bestowed on the Syrian military enemy, Naaman; to the commands to love enemies in the great Sermons, to the Commandment “You must not kill” (in Mt. Mk and Lk) if you wish to inherit eternal life, to the numerous commands of nonviolent love in John’s Eucharistic discourse, to his refusal of armed defense in the Garden, to his forgiveness of the lethal enemies who crucified him as he followed his own teachings to the end, we can see Jesus accomplishing Isaiah’s mission. No wonder that Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa has called Eucharist the Sacrament of Nonviolence. On its most basic level, the first Eucharist provided the physical nourishment for Jesus to take the last steps on his path of nonviolence.
In an earlier time when adult baptism was the norm and catechesis did not hide the possibility of a death like Jesus’, the baptized did not go to war. Having aligned itself with the Roman Empire and accepted Christian participation in its military, Church unity began to crumble. When empires and nations split, the Church was split as well. The first was the split between Catholic and Orthodox but unity in the nonviolent Jesus as an adult Baptismal commitment had already been fractured and Gospel based pacifism became only a golden thread, persisting until today.
You write, “If their Baptism meant so little to...millions of combatants...then what, finally, was the point of Christianity? And, if it makes no concrete difference, then why not just leave it behind and move on?" Here you touch on another scandal of those with authority to teach the Gospel that is greater than that of clergy pedophilia. (see enclosure, “The Seamless Garment…”) This is much like what Franz Jagerstatter once said: “If the Church does not speak out in the present crisis, what difference would it make if no Church door was ever opened again.” I hope you will see the new film about Franz, “A Hidden Life”. Though some say Franz was not opposed to all war, I believe he was opposed to all killing by the end of his journey.
Today, the wars of the US are killing mostly non-Christians, an issue you don’t address. Since all are created in God’s image and are children of God, they too are our siblings. Christians are those who embrace the life ethic of Jesus discernable in the Gospel, a Consistent Jesus Life Ethic. To leave nonviolence towards all, friends and enemies, out of that ethic, is to leave Jesus out.
Of course, the real concern is how to get Christians to remember who they are. Bishops need to play a key role. Perhaps, with the perspective of 100 years and “1917’s” reminder of the evils of WWI, the USCCB might repent of its past support for WWI, agree with Benedict XV that it was “a useless slaughter that brings hell to earth”, agree with Benedict XVI that it is no longer licit to even speak of a just war, and support a sainthood cause for Benjamin Salmon. An individual bishop who took these steps would set an example regardless of what the USCCB does. The “new evangelization” should consider what in the “old evangelization” experienced by Martin of Tours when he was a Roman soldier made it impossible for the young catechumen who wanted to be baptized to remain in Caesar’s army and fight his wars. I’m sure it was not CJWT!
As He has loved us,
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