What should a Catholic in the military do if he believes a particular war to be unjust and he is required to participate in that war?
The overriding principal that binds Catholics-and all human beings-is that we must follow our conscience. Having said that, we must also qualify this with the provision that we are obliged to form our consciences properly and in accord with the truth, as it can be known to us. With regards to war, both the Bible and the Church teach that under the right conditions, war may be justly waged (see our homepage for more information on the Just war theory). If an individual Catholic objects to all war, however, the Church and our Nation have recognized this as an exception that must be honored, if it is rooted in authentic conscientious objection and not lesser motives. With regards to conscientious objection to particular wars, however, the matter is more complicated, for the assumption of our military is that our forces would not be ordered to engage in an unjust war. Hence, traditionally it is more difficult to make the case for conscientious objection to a particular war when the individual is not opposed in conscience to all forms of war. Still, it is true that any nation, including our own, can act unjustly against human life--as is clearly the case in the murder that is abortion. Hence, the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church has the right and even duty in cases in which an unjust war is proposed or entered into to speak on the matter and if necessary, to oblige Catholics in conscience to object and refuse to participate. As to the present crisis, many Catholic leaders have spoken against a War on Iraq, yet they have stopped short of insisting upon a course of action for Catholics in the military. Short of that, my own position is to put the matter to prayer and to fulfill my obligation and oath to serve as ordered, unless and until such time that the Church or the evidence so bind me in conscience, that I cannot in good conscience serve.
The short answer to the question: If a Catholic is utterly convinced in conscience that a war is unjust and his own role constitutes direct participation in the effort, he has the right and obligation to object and even refuse to participate, regardless of the consequences to person and career. However, prior to taking such a drastic step, I vigorously urge any Catholic in such a position to seek out the counsel of a Catholic chaplain.