United States Catholic Conference
February 14, 1980
We have followed closely the public debate on the reinstitution of registration for military service with the possible renewal of military conscription to follow. The questions of registration and conscription for military service are part of the broader political-moral issue of war and peace in the nuclear age. But registration and conscription bear so directly on the moral decision-making of citizens that they require specific attention.
The U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), and its predecessor the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), have spoken to the question of peacetime military conscription five times since 1944. The present debate in Congress and the media raises both old and new questions; we offer in this statement a body of principles and a series of positions in response to the public debate.
We recognize, of course, that the questions of registration and conscription arise, as Vatican II said, because, "war has not been rooted out of human affairs". In the face of the sad truth of this statement, our response as teachers in the Church must be the same as that of all the popes of this century. We call in season and out of season for the international community to turn from war and to do the works of peace. The primary obligation of the nuclear age is to banish resort to force from the daily affairs of nations and peoples. From Pius XII to John Paul II the cry of the Church and the prayer of all believers is a reiteration of the words of Paul VI: "No more war, war never again.! This must remain our primary response to war today.
Only in the context of this statement can we consider the question of what is the legitimate role of governments and the responsibilities of citizens regarding military conscription. We see registration, conscription and participation in military service as moral questions as well as political issues. Our perspective on these issues is shaped by Catholic moral teaching on the role of the state, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens, when both citizen and state are confronted by questions of war and peace.
With Vatican II we recognize that: "As long as the danger of war remains and there is no competent and sufficiently powerful authority at the international level, governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted". This principle acknowledges the right of the state to call citizens to acts of "legitimate defense". To this right there corresponds the duty each citizen has to contribute to the common good of society, including, as an essential element, the defense of society. Both the right of the state and the responsibility of the citizen are governed by moral principles which seek to protect the welfare of society and to preserve inviolate the conscience of the citizen.
The moral right of the state to use force is severely limited both in terms of the reasons for which force is employed and the means to be used. While acknowledging the duty of the state to defend society and its correlative right to use force in certain circumstances, we also affirm the Catholic teaching that the state's decision to use force should always be morally scrutinized by citizens asked to support the decision or to participate in war. From the perspective of the citizen the moral scrutiny of every use of force can produce a posture of responsible participation in the government's decision, or conscientious objection to some reasons for using force, some methods of using force, or even some specific branches of the service because of the missions they may be asked to perform. (Cf. Human Life in Our Day.)
In light of these general principles, we are led to the following specific positions:
- Registration: We acknowledge the right of the state to register citizens, for the purpose of military conscription, both in peacetime and in times of national emergency. Therefore, we find no objection in principle to this action by the government. However, we believe it necessary to present convincing reasons for this at any particular time.
- Military Conscription: We are opposed to any reinstitution of military conscription except in the case of a national defense emergency. We support the present standby draft system which requires the chief executive to obtain a new authorization to induct a specific number of men into the armed forces if clear purposes of adequate defense demand conscription.
- Conscientious Objection: We regard this question in all its dimensions as a central element in Catholic teaching on the morality of war. First, we support the right of conscientious objection as a valid moral position, derived from the Gospel and Catholic teaching, and recognized as well in U.S. civil law. The legal protection provided conscientious objectors is a commendable part of our political system which must be preserved in any policy of conscription.
- Universal National Service We continue to oppose, as we have in the past, a universal or national service corps; our opposition rests upon its compulsory character when a proportionate threat to the nation or need for its not clearly evident.
- Women and Military Conscription: One of the new questions in the public debate about registration and conscription is whether women should be registered and conscripted on the same basis as men. This is a complex question which touches several issues. It is our position that the past practice of making military service an option for women but not an obligation has served us well as a society. We do not see good reasons for changing this practice and so we oppose both the registration and the conscription of women.
- Methods of Registration: While we acknowledge the right of the state to register citizens, we are disturbed by proposals to use methods of registration which would require schools to provide information for registration. Such direct access by public authorities to records for this sensitive moral issue could raise serious issues of church and state. We express our opposition to this method of registration; we support methods which do not directly involve the private or religious sector in the registration process.