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All Saints 2003 VOL II .4Printable Version

Acceptance Speech of Bishop John Michael Botean
Recipient of the Saint Marcellus Award
Catholic Peace Fellowship Fall Conference
October 11, 2003 Moreau Seminary, Notre Dame, Indiana

Catholic Peace Fellowship co-founder Tom Cornell presented the Saint Marcellus Award to Bishop Botean of the Romanian Catholic Diocese of Canton, OH.. Bishop Botean then offered a public address on the subject of conscientious objection in the Church. His remarks included two major theological claims that are particularly timely and provocative today. First, he situated the Church’s responsibility for the education and formation of conscience on war in the current context of the protection of children. Second, he addressed squarely those who claim that the state, and not the Church, is the domain where final prudential judgments on war are made. His full address follows.

I am somewhat at a loss to explain to myself why it is that I am standing here this evening. I am overwhelmed with gratitude, of course, at your having chosen me to be the first recipient of the Saint Marcellus Award of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

I am humbled by the presence here of Deacon Tom Cornell. Along with that of Gordon Zahn, with whom I had the privilege of working at the Pax Christi USA Center on Conscience and War in Cambridge, MA, in 1982-83, the name of Tom Cornell has been practically synonymous with Catholic conscientious objection, as well as with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. The efforts of Fr. Michael Baxter, furthermore, to revive, inspire and invigorate the CPF in these latter days also fill me with a sense of amazement and appreciation, not to mention a profound sense of unworthiness for the honor I am now being shown. I would be remiss were I to omit mention of the life’s work of my good friend and former co-worker, Michael Hovey, and above all the inestimable impact the work and witness of my spiritual father, the Reverend Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, have had upon my life and spirit. Father McCarthy’s presence in my life has been an unmistakable sign of grace, for it is something I have never deserved but have always been blessed with and changed by.

But it is the presence of you young people, the flower of the Catholic Church in the United States, that I find most moving this evening. I believe I am experiencing something of the awe and joy that I have heard in the voice of the Holy Father, as I believe many of you have, as well, on the many occasions at which he has addressed the Church’s youth. So it is easy for me this evening to make his often repeated exhortation to you, my own, and urge you, “do not be satisfied with mediocrity.” Do not be satisfied with mediocrity in the Church, and do not be satisfied with mediocrity in yourselves.

Above all, do not be satisfied with mediocrity in your pastors and leaders, but instead inspire them with your courage and enthusiasm. Mediocrity is the vice of age and fear, and, in the face of that it, is the special task and gift of youth to present itself to the shepherds of the Church and to demand our attention and fidelity to the Lord, for whose sake we have been given a ministry of the protection of souls. Our many failures in this ministry of protection, particularly the protection of children and young people, are only too well known in our day. But you have, by your presence here this evening, demonstrated your trust in our Lord Jesus Christ and your unflagging willingness to stand by the elders of the Church and insist that we do better.

You, in particular, have made it your business to urge us on to a better performance of our work in a very specific domain, the domain of conscience in the matter of homicide. And it is right that you do so, for what good is it if we pastors struggle to protect young people from sexual abuse while leaving you exposed to the greater depredations of those who, within and outside the household of faith, would throw your bodies, minds, souls, and spirits to the dogs of war? It is out of my profoundest care for you, and in particular for the young people of my own Romanian Catholic Church, that I have said and written what I have. It is because of you that I am here today.

You see, I come from an ancient Catholic tradition that does not know the just-war theory. My tradition, while hardly pacifist, has simply not used these just-war criteria in order to justify mass slaughter. Though the people who have come up in my tradition have, to be sure, engaged in mass slaughter and do so to this day, there remains an understanding within our tradition that to succumb to killing represents a failure at the crucial point in the life of the Christian. The point at which Christ Himself is most at work making the Christian more like Himself is the point at which human freedom chooses either to cooperate with divine grace in love or to give in to its own terror. We call this “involuntary sin,” but it is not to be confused with “non-culpability” as perceived in the formulations of a more Western moral theology. There may be diminished moral responsibility in involuntary sin, but the resulting soul-destroying sickness is the same. To kill, for whatever reason, is a defilement of the killer and a sacrilege committed upon the killed. I believe the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, had something like this in mind when he declared that “war is always a defeat for humanity.”

However, the Eastern Catholic Churches share communion with a Church, the Roman Catholic Church, which has very much used the theory of the just war in its moral reasoning and pastoral practice. For reasons too time-consuming to entertain at this moment, much of Western Catholic moral tradition has become the operational theology of many, if not most, Eastern Catholics in our day. Hence, though I am not a “Just-war Christian”, I have had to frame my pastoral approach in the categories and terminology of the just-war theory, as I did in my Lenten pastoral letter of March 7, 2003, and as I will continue to do as long as my people are operating out of consciences formed by that theory. However, I am personally convinced that the only weapon capable of destroying humanity’s ancient terrors is the non-violent, active love of friend and enemy made visible in the person and message of Jesus, made available as the grace of Jesus in the life of the Christian through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As an aside, let me note that I, as an Eastern Christian for whom much of the expression of faith comes from what we call “Holy Tradition,” find it difficult to refer to the just-war theory as the “just-war tradition.” It seems to me that, though it has indeed been “handed down” from generation to generation, this theory lacks something of the presence of God in it that Eastern Christianity considers constitutive of tradition in the Church.

But, what does this have to do with young people?

In the August 2003 issue of the Catholic magazine Crisis, a letter to the editor appeared under the heading “Why did Orthodox Catholics support the war in Iraq?” The letter was in response to an article published in the May issue which attempted to morally justify the war for Catholics. The letter writer, William Gallagher, begins his reflection this way:

“It seems that the war in Iraq has put the final nail in the coffin of the Catholic Church in America. I say that because so many of the folks who have been decrying the liberal dissent in the Church over the years (and rightly so) have turned into dissenters themselves. I have never seen such evasions and circumlocutions as I am seeing from the so-called orthodox Catholics regarding this war.”

“The ‘Guest Column’ by Rev. Bryce Sibley (‘Bush’s Prudential Decision,’ May 2003) is a case in point. He says that although ‘Catholics ought to listen to and respect the voice of the Holy See,’ it is the President of the United States who has the ‘ultimate authority to make his prudential judgment and to decide on the justness of a strike against Iraq.’ Huh? Bishop John M. Botean, the head of the Romanian Catholic eparchy of St. George in Canton, Ohio, puts it better, I think. He argues that ‘the nation-state is never the final arbiter or authority for the Catholic on what is moral.’ He stated quite clearly that ‘any direct participation and support of this war is an objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin.’

“Where were all the other American bishops on this war? The Holy Father said that conditions for a just-war had not been met. What part of that statement do the American bishops not understand?”

The author of the May article, Rev. Bryce Sibley, then responds to Mr. Gallagher as follows:

“Mr. Gallagher seems befuddled that I or anyone else could claim to be a faithful Catholic and at the same time hold the position that it is President Bush who has the ultimate responsibility and authority to make a prudential decision applying the just-war theory to the specific situation with Iraq.

“In response to his doubt, let me once again quote the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deals with just-war and legitimate authority: ‘The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2309). There is not much more of a retort that I can give.”

Fr. Sibley’s only “retort that I can give” is something I explicitly anticipated and addressed in my March 2003 pastoral letter in paragraphs eight and nine. Paragraph eight quotes word for word what Fr. Sibley quotes from the Catechism (2309), and then goes on in the remainder of the paragraph, and in paragraph nine, to explain what 2309 means in terms of universally accepted Catholic teaching, and other directly pertinent and controlling sections of the Catechism (1903 and 2313).

Of course, a person or persons “who have responsibility for the common good” have to make a “prudential judgment” to determine if the conditions of the Catholic just-war theory have been met and are being adhered to. But, suppose their judgments result in laws, policies and programs that are going to kill six million Jews or produce other moral abominations? Then what? Is the individual Catholic supposed to follow blindly such a decision by “those who have responsibility for the common good?” In other words, is an individual Catholic in a bureaucracy, or in any other chain of command, morally permitted to follow any course set forth by that bureaucracy or chain of command, so long as such a course is set by those who have the legal authority to do so?

The Catechism emphatically says, “No!” (1903 and 2313). Since the Catechism says, no, this means that there are moral standards that must be applied to the choice of whether to follow a law or a course of action designated by political authorities beyond the mere enactment of the law or the political decision to pursue a course of action under the rubric of the “common good.” The attempt by some Catholic apologists to morally legitimize the killing of Iraqi people, including Iraqi Catholics, by isolating section 2309 from the rest of the Catechism, and from the Gospel itself, is a disingenuous use of intellect.

It is also telling!

When one raises Stephen Decatur’s toast, “My country, right or wrong,” to the level of an absolute in moral discourse then, granting the self-evident concupiscence that saturates the politics of every nation-state e.g. the lust for power, wealth, popularity, etc., one has embarked on a road where abominations and atrocities will not just be normalized; they will be divinized as morally in conformity with the Will of God as revealed by Jesus. As the renowned Catholic biblical scholar, the late Rev. John L. McKenzie, wrote, “It is the demonic quality of the state that it desires to be God.” The state wants to have the final say as to what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. The Church, since its beginning, has never granted this level of moral authority to the state over its members. A pinch of incense to Caesar as God might have been the law of the state, but the Church knew that she and her members measured all humanly devised laws against a Higher Law. The history of Christian martyrdom in the early centuries of the Church is proof positive that the Church in no way accepts Decatur’s dictum as a moral absolute.

Considering all that has been said, and with immediate and long-range pastoral concern for the spiritual and moral welfare of our Catholic community, especially our Catholic youth, I would propose that it is now imperative that the Catholic leadership in this country unequivocally demand a selective conscientious objector statute be added to the presently existing law. In the past, the U.S. bishops as a body have requested this of the federal government, but they have been shunted aside by calculated congressional and executive branch inattention to the issue. However, the time is now upon us when such a law must exist for the protection of those tens of millions of Catholics who presently find it morally acceptable to reject Jesus’ teaching of nonviolent love of friends and enemies and who are therefore, in conscience, morally subject to the standards of the just-war theory in relationship to state homicide. Blind obedience to political authorities is not an option for the individual Catholic or for the Church (Catechism, 2313).

The Church’s insistence that a selective conscientious objection law is mandatory for the protection for those tens of millions of Catholics who are morally formed by the just-war theory is a grave moral imperative that U.S. Catholic leadership must face with ultimate seriousness for the spiritual, moral, psychological, emotional and physical protection of our Catholic youth, today and for all tomorrows. The stakes are infinitely high in this matter.

Elie Wiesel once noted that “Old men start wars and young men die in them.” I am talking about what I consider the most serious challenge facing me as a bishop in the United States. The Catholic youth of this country, I am convinced, need moral and political protection from the power and shrewdness of old men and women who, because of a lifetime spent amid the machinations of nation-state politics and economics, have become desensitized to the reality of what it means to send a young boy or girl to kill and to die on behalf of their elaborate agendas.

If the Church does not protect its youth from the spiritual, moral, psychological, emotional and physical destruction of being forced to kill unjustly – in other words, being forced to commit murder – who will protect them? What is left of the just-war Catholic adolescent’s conscience, soul, psyche, emotional structure, etc., if he or she is forced into the situation of being legally ordered to kill another human being (whose killing the Catholic boy or girl believes to be unjust) when such a Catholic boy or girl has no legal recourse by which to say no? Prison, or desertion, or fleeing to another country, or martyrdom, etc., are, of course, options. In fact, they are the only options presently available under U.S. law for Catholic youth who have been formed in and have accepted Catholic just-war theory as a standard of conscience.

Catholic spiritual and pastoral leaders in the United States owe the Catholic youth of the United States a selective conscientious objector law, and we owe it to them now. Whatever resources and whatever strategies are needed to see that such a law comes into existence should be expended and implemented without hesitation and without reserve. All this is said not as a political rallying cry for a selective conscientious objection law. It is said as a cry of the heart on behalf of young Catholic men and women who in the future are going to be entrapped in the wickedness and snares of governmental homicidal violence because they “saw no other choice.” Genuine pastoral concern and care for the young people in our Catholic Church demands not leading them into the ordeal of having to choose between murder and martyrdom.

Finally, it must be noted that if the United States Catholic Bishops accepted the nation-state as the final arbiter for the Catholic for the morality or immorality of a war, we never would have asked in years past for the inclusion of a selective conscientious objection provision in the selective service law. Again, to present Catholic moral theology as if it accepted Decatur’s position as a moral absolute; to present Catholic moral theology as if the state made the final decision for the Catholic about what is moral, what is Holy, what is the way of sanctity, what is the way to eternal life, is to present blatant falsehood as truth. Presenting blatant falsehood as truth is currently the modus operandi in many secular circles, but the Catholic Church and its leadership must not allow it to become, by osmosis, the modus operandi of our faith. It is as if some Catholics simply do not want to comprehend intellectually nor integrate morally the witness of Franz Jaegerstaetter in World War II. But, whether his legalized martyrdom at the hands of a state that insisted it be the final judge of right and wrong, of good and evil, is made visible or downplayed by design, Jaegerstaetter’s life and death will forever stand in eternal opposition, indeed in eternal hostility to “my country right or wrong” as a moral principle in the Catholic Church.

I will close with a quotation from Dostoevsky, “At some thoughts one stands perplexed, especially at the sight of men’s sin, and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that once for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is a mighty force, the strongest of all things. There is nothing else like it.”

I submit that humble love can also prevail in a world grown sick, but not sick enough, of fighting, and in a Church grown old through its fear, its infidelity, and its mediocrity!


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