Nonviolence, Peace Spirituality

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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In militarized Honduras, delegation speaks truth to power at U.S. embassy

NCR Editor’s note: Tom Webb traveled with an ecumenical delegation to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Jan. 24-30 to witness the repression against peaceful demonstrations to the recent presidential election. 

by Tom Webb

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — After three days of intense listening, conversing and witnessing, members of the Emergency Religious Delegation to Honduras took a four-hour bus trip Jan. 28 from El Progreso to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to deliver a report to the U.S. Embassy.

We arrived shortly before sunset at the Loyola Center and prepared for a nighttime vigil outside the embassy. This site also serves as the satellite for Radio Progreso, one of the few independent radio networks in Honduras which investigates, analyzes and reports on human rights violations, military misconduct and the work of environmental defenders throughout the country. The main station in El Progreso is directed by Jesuit Fr. Ismael Moreno, also known as Padre Melo, a native Honduran who is considered one of the leading voices for the poor and marginalized. Honduras is a desperately impoverished nation, with one out of five Hondurans in rural areas living on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank.

At nightfall the delegation made their way through narrow and twisting streets to the embassy. We carried two six-foot-long orange banners with our delegation name proudly emblazoned on them. Several other people carried crosses with black ribbons bearing the names of seven of 33 civilians who have been killed in the post-election, government-ordered national repression.

It was difficult to avoid the heavily militarized state of this country. Over 100 heavily armed military and national police lined the sidewalk of the block-long embassy, arm-to-arm. Tear-gas guns and automatic weapons were menacingly displayed. The steps to the embassy were even more heavily guarded with several soldiers on each of the six steps to the main entrance…

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Post-election Honduras means living in a hyper-militarized state

NCR Editor’s note: Tom Webb is traveling with an ecumenical delegation to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Jan. 24-30 to witness the repression against peaceful demonstrations to the recent presidential election. National Catholic Reporter will continue to have reports from the delegation in the coming days.

by Tom Webb

SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS — In the aftermath of the allegedly fraudulent presidential election in November 2017, Hondurans have become accustomed to living under military rule.

In the northern region around San Pedro Sula, small squads of military and national police routinely occupy strategic intersections, bridges and demonstration points, keeping order armed with batons, tear gas and automatic weapons. In worse scenarios, order has involved beatings, home invasions, and the use of weapons maiming, wounding and in several instances actually killing innocent people.

Juan Orlando Hernández was inaugurated to a second term in office Jan. 27 in a heavily guarded ceremony in the National Stadium in Tegucigalpa. On that same day, several delegates from an interfaith group of Americans who journeyed to Honduras to accompany our Honduran brothers and sisters during this time of darkness joined with reporters from Radio Progreso to examine firsthand how this tense country might fare.

We accompanied four teams of reporters to points around El Progreso and San Pedro Sula to observe and speak to local residents.

What we found were generally a few scattered acts of protest that were met with a more tentative response from the military battalions. In Puller, north of El Progreso, we witnessed a small dirt road blocked by a burning log and palm fronds. As part of a weeklong strike to protest the election, the fire was intended to dissuade workers from going to their jobs at the Hondupalma factory in the rural community Aldea La 36. While some 100 villagers from the small rural community hovered around the smoking fire, there was no police response. But the protesters’ tactics proved successful as a caravan of cars and trucks idled on the road with no way to enter…

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Being a witness to election aftermath in Honduras

NCR Editor’s note: Tom Webb is traveling with an ecumenical delegation to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Jan. 24-30 to witness the repression against peaceful demonstrations to the recent presidential election. National Catholic Reporter will continue to have reports from the delegation in the coming days.

by Tom Webb

SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS —An ecumenical delegation of 50 U.S. citizens journeyed Jan. 24 to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to learn more about the furious national political turmoil following the mid-December announcement by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal declaring incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández the winner of the Nov. 26 election.

Delegates representing 48 different denominations, religious communities, faith-based advocacy groups and Latin American solidarity networks from 13 U.S. states gathered at the Sisters of Notre Dame Retreat Center in El Progresso in northern Honduras for an overview of the current state of Honduras, to learn more about the events leading to and following the election and hear the witness of local groups of their experiences over the past several weeks. They were joined by four people from Canada, Colombia, El Salvador and Argentina.

Ordinarily, one would not expect such turmoil within days following a presidential election. The opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, of the Alliance of the Opposition Against Dictatorship party, was winning the election by about 5 percentage points a day after the voting ended. But then the computer system used to tally the votes suddenly and inexplicably went down.

About 36 hours later, the vote count resumed. President Hernández had substantially cut the lead of Nasralla. By mid-December, following a re-count, Hernández was declared the winner by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal with 42.9 percent of the vote. Nasralla gathered 41.2 percent…

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