When bishops said ‘yes’ to war, Ben Salmon said ‘no’

by James Dearie, National Catholic Reporter

Clad in oversized goggles, with grotesque face coverings under otherworldly gasmasks, soldiers in the trenches of the First World War seemed fully mechanized, fully dehumanized, in their attempt to survive the world’s first employment of chemical warfare on a large scale.  The industrial revolution, and the technology that it ushered in, had finally been turned from their original home in industry, to the art of war itself.

You can see the fear-inspiring uniforms the soldiers wore, along with life-size images of men in them, at the National World War I Memorial and Museum, just a few miles from NCR’s headquarters in Kansas City. In this year, the centennial anniversary of the war’s end, that old technology serves as a ghastly reminder of the ways in which warfare evolved in the 20th century. While World War I changed what war itself could be, it also began a change in how the church, both leadership and laity, thought about war, the United States, and Catholics’ role in both.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XV, who reigned from September of 1914 until his death in early 1922, pled the cause of peace, issuing an encyclical decrying war in November and calling for a Christmas truce in December. As the conflict raged on, he continued calling for an end to hostilities and even presented a plan to end the war, although his pronouncements were largely disregarded by the belligerents.

In the U.S., which stayed out of the European conflict until April of 1917, the bishops pledged the support of American Catholics for the war effort as soon as it was underway.

“Moved to the very depths of our hearts by the stirring appeal of the President of the United States, and by the action of our national Congress, we accept whole-heartedly and unreservedly the decree of that legislative authority proclaiming this country to be in a state of war,” the bishops wrote to President Woodrow Wilson after the declaration of war.

Although the U.S. reaction to the war undermined the papal position at the time, it was hardly unique. “French Catholics saw the war as a chance to unite France; German Catholics (persecuted by the state in the 19th century) participated wholeheartedly,” historian and former dean of the University of Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters John T. McGreevy told NCR.  “And the same was true for Italian, Belgian Catholics etc. This all made it challenging for the Vatican to manage tensions, especially when Benedict XV offered his own peace plan, and was then challenged by the peace plan offered by Woodrow Wilson.”

While many American Catholics shared their bishops’ sentiments and served in the war wholeheartedly, some did not.  One example was Denver resident Ben Salmon, who refused to go to Europe after being drafted in 1917. Despite the pronouncements of the leadership of his church, Salmon cited his religious convictions in a letter to the president, stating, “The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is unconditional and inexorable … When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.”

At the time, it seemed that there may be “no space for someone like Ben Salmon in the Catholic Church,” Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International told NCR. “While in other traditions … there was an agreed upon root for a conscientious objector. That simply didn’t exist in the Catholic Church.”

The church had long relied on the Just War Theory to determine the morality of participation in such conflict, “which had been useful but didn’t stretch the thinking very much beyond that, which was very notable in the United States,” Dennis added…

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