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Church history

The following article originally appeared in Salt of the Earth. It is posted here for private use only. It may not be reprinted in whole or in part without the permission of Salt of the Earth magazine.


How Catholics began
to speak their peace

Tom Cornell

Until the final session of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic peace movement faced two daunting, if not intractable, problems. First was the question of conscientious objection. Before the council, almost any priest, bishop, or theologian, asked whether a good Catholic could be a conscientious objector, would have answered no. If pressed about the fact that there were Catholic conscientious objectors, they would have said: "These men are mistaken. Catholics may not be conscientious objectors except by reason of invincible ignorance. As such they may be tolerated."

However, a vigorous peace movement was impossible to envision without the idea of personal responsibility, especially in regard to one's own participation in war.

The other major stumbling block to the growth of a Catholic peace movement was the question of disarmament as a moral imperative and, specifically, the question of the Bomb. Catholic moral theology had never denied a people the right to defend themselves or the means to do so. But the church had yet to come to terms with weapons of mass destruction.

Jean Goss came from a bourgeois family in France that had fallen into poverty. His father was an anarchist, his mother Catholic. Goss worked in a factory from the age of 13, where he discovered labor unions as a vigorous instrument for defending the rights of the workers. This was the first step towards practicing nonviolence.

His career goal on the French railways was interrupted by World War II. "I was a good soldier," he would later boom in a robust oratorical style that made people think he might be a preacher or a laicized priest. "I killed many men, I don't know how many, and I got medals for bravery."

Then, during a terrible slaughter of French troops while he was defending their retreat to Dunkirk, Goss had a mystical experience in which, his wife, Hildegard Goss-Mayr, writes, "God revealed to him the only true alternative to violence: absolute, self-giving love."

Later Goss was captured by the German army and imprisoned in a POW camp. "The old Jean Goss was gone. I don't know where he went. I couldn't hate any more, not even the guards, not even the Nazis."

After the war, Goss attached himself to a group of worker priests in an industrial section of Paris. He went to work for the French railway system and soon rose to leadership in his union. But his heart burned to work for peace and the abolition of war—war he knew in the concrete, not war in the abstract, which moral theologians write about. He wanted the Catholic Church to rediscover the nonviolence of Jesus.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani came to understand the realities of war also, as he toured southern Italy after World War II. Southern Italy has always been poor, but poverty turned to destitution after unification of the Italian state in 1869, due to exploitation by the more powerful North.

Ottaviani saw the ruin brought upon already impoverished, innocent, and uncomprehending people by the war, and came to the conclusion that justice could no longer be served by war because of the massive injustices it generates, and because of who pays for it—always the poor. "Bellum omnino interdicendum," he wrote in a monograph from the Holy Office, "War is to be altogether forbidden."

Goss read it and sensed that this opening from a most unexpected source—Ottaviani was an ultraconservative even by pre-council standards—was too important not to enter. Goss wrote the cardinal asking for an audience. He got no answer. A second and a third letter remained unanswered. So in 1950 he used his union railway pass and took the train to Rome.

Goss had done a little research. He knew exactly where to find Ottaviani's office. A Swiss Guard stopped him on his way. After a brief "failure in communication," Goss made a dash up a flight of stairs, Swiss Guard in hot pursuit, halberd clattering.

An imposing figure appeared in the doorway of the Holy Office, tall and well-built, with milky eyes. Cardinal Ottaviani asked the cause of the racket. "Bellum omnino interdicendum, your Eminence!" Goss belted out.

The cardinal ushered Goss into his office, and they talked for two hours. Yes, he had written this. Yes, it is of the utmost importance, the greatest urgency, that the resources of the church be aimed at the elimination of the scourge of war, the cardinal and Goss agreed.

But the church, the cardinal insisted, speaks in this area to governments. Such matters as the justice or injustice of war in general or of a particular war are not to be left to individuals or to voluntary groupings to judge, but to the competent authorities of church and state. Conscientious objection to war or to military service was too foreign an idea for the cardinal.

Ottaviani was among the last defenders of the doctrine that "error has no rights" and of the confessional state as the norm to be strived for. But he was a good and an honest man. He continued his dialogue with Goss, and later with his wife, Hildegard Goss-Mayr.

Goss-Mayr came by her role as a leader in the international peace movement naturally. Her father, Kaspar Mayr, was one of the first Catholics in the leadership of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the largest religious pacifist organization in the world. Peace work was for Goss-Mayr a family legacy.

When Pope John XXIII decided to open the windows of the church to the modern world, to hold a council, no one knew what would fly in or out the windows, but what came to be known as the "peace lobby" set itself in motion. Goss had introduced his wife, Hildegard Goss-Mayr, to Ottaviani. He was impressed. Goss-Mayr had a doctorate in philosophy. She spoke with quiet authority, out of deep faith and iron conviction, but never overstating her case.

The cardinal was able to introduce Jean and Hildegard to bishops and theologians hammering out the working document, Schema XIII, which came to be known as Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. In meetings with more than 200 bishops, they urged that the teaching of Pacem in terris, Pope John's 1963 encyclical on peace, be expanded, and that the question of the deterrent be addressed as well as individual responsibility—conscientious objection to war and military service.

In 1965, during the fourth and final session of Vatican II when the council discussed Schema XIII, Goss helped organize an international group of 20 women to come to Rome to fast and pray for the council fathers for ten days. Among them was Dorothy Day.

Day did not "lobby." But she brought with her 300 copies of a special edition of the Catholic Worker, edited by Eileen Egan, as a teaching tool for the bishops and theologians at the council, featuring articles by Gordon Zahn, James Douglass, and Howard Everngam.

A special gift had made it possible to airmail every bishop in the world a copy of this issue of the Catholic Worker, but Day brought extras just in case. Barbara and Bernard Wall, of the English Pax Association, joined Egan, Zahn, Douglass, and Richard Carbray as the English-speaking peace lobby.

They found many bishops more than eager to explore ways of expanding the church's peace teaching, among them Melchite Patriarch Maximos IV of Jerusalem, Archbishop George Flahiff of Toronto, and Bishop John Taylor of Stockholm.

In the end, language recognizing and even praising conscientious objection was incorporated into the text. "It seems right that laws make human provision for the case of those who for reason of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however that they accept some other form of service to the human community" (Gaudium et spes, 79).

Douglass wrote the words pertaining to the unqualified condemnation of the use of weapons of mass destruction: "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" (Gaudium et spes, 80).

Ottaviani, said to have been the least popular bishop among the council fathers, rose to defend Schema XIII and to urge its acceptance against the efforts of some American bishops, led by Cardinal Francis Spellman, to weaken the text. Ottaviani was given the longest and loudest ovation of the council, and Gaudium et spes was accepted resoundingly.

Bishop Taylor thought the contribution of the Catholic Workers to the council so valuable that he gave his Commemorative Medallion, which Pope Paul VI presented to each of the council fathers, to the Catholic Worker. I have it before me now.

So it happened that a leap of faith in the trenches of World War II and a dash up a Vatican staircase hastened a process not yet completed. After a long, bumpy, and tortuous road through accommodation to power, Crusades, and "just wars," the church now clearly teaches the right of conscientious objection to war and to military service. In 1980 the U.S. Catholic bishops went so far as to pledge the good offices of Catholic institutions to the aid of any and all who are troubled by the military draft.

The council's condemnation of acts of mass destruction in war has led to another question: If these acts are wrong, how can we justify the manufacture and stockpiling of weapons of their accomplishment? Pope Paul VI and the U.S. bishops, in their 1983 pastoral letter, indicate that any acceptance of the deterrent has to be strictly temporary and conditional—the condition being that they "buy time" to find ways toward effective multilateral disarmament.

While this advance in church teaching was taking place at the highest level of the magisterium, something of equal importance was happening from the base. Ordinary Catholic laypeople took a leading role in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Catholics were among the first to demonstrate, to burn their draft cards, and to engage in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against the war, and they took leadership positions in the broad coalitions that raised the biggest protests in the nation's history.

Among conscientious objectors of the Vietnam period, Catholics were conspicuously disproportionate. Since that time, Pax Christi USA, the official Catholic peace movement, has had the most vigorous growth and educational program of any American peace group. The Catholic Church may well be on its way to becoming the peace church. It may seem to take an enormous leap of faith to believe this, but if anything, Jean Goss's story teaches that the Holy Spirit has a marvelous sense of humor.—END

© 1999 by Claretian Publications

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