Declaration on Conscientious Objection
and Selective Conscientious Objection

United States Conference
of Catholic Bishops
October 21, 1971

For many of our Catholic people, especially the young, the question of participation in military service has become a serious moral problem. They properly look to their spiritual leaders for guidance in this area of moral decision and for support when they judge their sentiments to be in keeping with Catholic Christian tradition. For this reason, we wish to express ourselves on the following principles.

The traditional teaching of the Church regarding the importance of individual conscience is crucial in this issue of conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection. The obligation to seek the truth in order to form right and true judgments of conscience and the obligation to follow conscience was put in positive terms by Pope Paul VI and the Fathers at the Second Vatican Council:

Further light is shed on the subject of one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law–eternal, objective, and universal–whereby God orders, directs, and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community, by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever increasingly the unchanging truth. Hence every man has the duty and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious, in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, with the use of all suitable means.

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication, and dialogue. In the course of these, men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. (“Declaration on Religious Freedom,” n.3)

Addressing the question in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Our Holy Father and the Bishops at the Second Vatican Council wrote:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.

Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful way conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals and from social relationships.

Hence the more that a correct conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. (“The Church in the Modern World,” n.16)

In addition, the Church has always affirmed the obligation of individuals to contribute to the common good and the general welfare of the larger community. This is the basis for the participation of Christians in the legitimate defense of their nation.

The Council Fathers, recognizing the absence of adequate authority at the international level to resolve all disputes among nations, acknowledged that “governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.” (“The Church in the Modern World,” n. 79)

When survival of the wider community has been threatened by external force, the Church has traditionally upheld the obligation of Christians to serve in military defensive forces. Such community-oriented service, that is, soldiers devoted to the authentic purposes of securing peace and justice, has merited the Church’s commendation.

The Catholic Bishops of the United States are gratefully conscious of the sacrifices and valor of those men who are serving and who have served in the armed forces and especially those who have given their lives in service to the country. Their courage in the defense of the common good must not be underestimated or forgotten. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, “As long as they (members of the armed forces) fulfill this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace.” (“The Church in the Modern World,” n. 79)

It was also recognized by the Second Vatican Council that the common good is also served by the conscientious choice of those who renounce violence and war, choosing the means of nonviolence instead:

. . . we cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided that this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or of the community itself. (“The Church in the Modern World,” n. 78)

Furthermore, the Council Fathers, addressing themselves more specifically to the rights of the conscientious objector to war, stated:

. . . it seems right that laws make humane provisions for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they accept some other form of service to the human community. (“The Church in the Modern World,” n. 79)

Although a Catholic may take advantage of the law providing exemption from military service because of conscientious opposition to all war, there often arises a practical problem at the local level when those who exercise civil authority are of the opinion that a Catholic cannot under any circumstances be a conscientious objector because of religious training and belief. This confusion, in some cases, is the result of a mistaken notion that a person cannot be a conscientious objector unless the individual is a member of one of the traditional pacifist churches (for example, a Quaker).

In the light of the Gospel and from an analysis of the Church’s teaching on conscience, it is clear that a Catholic can be a conscientious objector to war in general or to a particular war “because of religious training and belief.” It is not enough, however, simply to declare that a Catholic can be a conscientious objector or a selective conscientious objector. Efforts must be made to help Catholics form a correct conscience in the matter, to discuss with them the duties of citizenship, and to provide them with adequate draft counseling and information services. in order to give them the full advantage of the law protecting their rights. Catholic organizations which could qualify as alternative service agencies should be encouraged to support and provide meaningful employment for the conscientious objector. As we hold individuals in high esteem who conscientiously serve in the armed forces, so also we should regard conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection as positive indicators within the Church of a sound moral awareness and respect for human life.

The status of the selective conscientious objector is complicated by the fact that the present law does not provide an exemption for this type of conscientious objection. We recognize the very complex procedural problems which selective conscientious objection poses for the civil community; we call upon moralists, lawyers and civil servants to work cooperatively toward a policy which can reconcile the demands of the moral and civic order concerning this issue. We reaffirm the recommendation on this subject contained in our November 1968 pastoral letter, “Human Life in Our Day”:

1) A modification of the Selective Service Act making it possible for selective conscientious objectors to refuse to serve in wars they consider unjust, without fear of imprisonment or loss of citizenship, provided they perform some other service to the human community;

2) An end to peacetime conscription.

In restating these recommendations, we are aware that a number of young men have left the country or have been imprisoned because of their opposition to compulsory military conscription. It is possible that in some cases this was done for unworthy motives, but in general we must presume sincere objections of conscience, especially on the part of those ready to suffer for their convictions. Since we have a pastoral concern for their welfare, we urge civil officials in revising the law to consider granting amnesty to those who have been imprisoned as selective conscientious objectors, and giving those who have emigrated an opportunity to return to the country to show responsibility for their conduct and to be ready to serve in other ways to show that they are sincere objectors.