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Catholic Peace Fellowship Revived

Long before the horror of September 11, plans for the revitalization of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, along with a meeting scheduled for November 11, were in process, led by original CPF founders Jim Forrest and Tom Cornell. Exactly two months after terrorist attacks on New York and Washington rallied a stunned and outraged country to war, and prompted even the most ardent pacifists to second thoughts of self-defense, members of the Catholic Peace Fellowship met at the University of Notre Dame to discuss the organization’s objectives, now rendered even more poignantly relevant.

I attended the November 11 meeting along with Mark and Louise Zwick, ND professor Fr. Michael Baxter, students and Catholic Workers from around the country, as well as Forrest, Tom and Monica Cornell, and veteran Catholic Workers Michael and Margaret Garvey, to discuss the current mission of the Catholic Peace Fellowship– dormant since the 1980s-and examine the various obstacles facing the peace movement today.

Four interrelated issues of CPF concern marked the agenda: formation of a practical and truly Gospel-based response to the September 11 attacks, the need for increased understanding of and practical and spiritual support for civilian conscientious objectors; the problem of a military chaplaincy of immense pastoral needs that lacks adequate information about CO status; and the presence of ROTC on Catholic university and high school campuses across the United States.

To begin the meeting, CPF leaders discussed the concern of CPF’s relation to its better-known Catholic peace work counterpart, Pax Christi. Many of us had wondered how CPF could avoid replicating Pax Christi’s agenda without appearing to be in conflict or competition with them.

While CPF is indeed an organization devoted to peace work, it differs from Pax Christi in its practical focus on the formation and support of conscientious objectors, serving as an information and assistance source for Christian pacifists, CPF leaders said. Given this distinction, replication is not a concern.

“Resources are so slender and the need is so overwhelming [in the peace movement] that the question of competition is really only theoretical,” Cornell noted, while Baxter added that “the two are actually very complimentary.”

Since the reinstatement of registration for the draft in 1980 after a four-year abeyance, conscientious objector status has suffered decreased attention, due to lack of emphasis on social and pacifist teachings in Catholic communities. Without Catholic parishes on the forefront of the peace movement, young people are being sucked into the military uninformed of their alternatives, and those who do elect to become COs are not supported sufficiently by army chaplains, often unaware themselves of the Christian CO perspective.

Unlike the 1960s, when conscripted COs had a month to formally declare their status, candidates today can have as little as 10 days. Furthermore, failure to indicate a CO stance when registering with government Selective Service agencies as a teen when registration is required for young men will make a later change seem “highly suspect” to any draft board.

Of further concern is the presence of ROTC at more than 100 Catholic high schools and approximately 70 Catholic college campuses around the country, not to mention its presence in secular schools. Advertising prestigious military careers and some enticing scholarship money besides, ROTC ropes in unsuspecting and often financially floundering students who discover too late that their “step up” into the military is less of a foothold than a trap.

Numerous possible responses to these issues were discussed at the meeting. Many participants emphasized the need for parishes to more actively promote pacifist teaching. When one student asked how he could assist CPF, Cornell and Forrest suggested he help talk to high school students and soldiers at military bases about conscientious objection. A mother with high school students herself mentioned the possibility of placing CPF information cards about CO status next to Selective Service registries in Catholic high schools, noting that the draft registration form does not provide any space in which to indicate an alternative status. Baxter raised the idea that the Church’s just war theory, along with pacifist doctrine, be taught at all Catholic campuses where ROTC is present.

Through workshops, a newsletter, website (http://www.nd.edu/~mbaxter/cpf/index.htm) and conferences around the country, CPF will support young people with draft counseling and assistance that involves formation of a draft file illustrating the applicant’s pacifist principles, registration as a CO with the local diocese, as well as connections to professional medical and legal assistance relevant to claiming CO status. With the ll-year-term of draft board judges ending in 2002, CPF also hopes to assist in and encourages others in their communities in finding replacements sympathetic to the CO cause.

Forrest, who started the CPF with Cornell in 1964 to support COs during the Vietnam War, said that the Catholic Church’s commitment to protecting all stages of human life, sometimes known as the “seamless garment” or consistent ethic of life principle, ought to be the primary source of inspiration for Catholic pacifists. “The Franciscan tradition in Catholicism, the just war tradition, are complimentary to the seamless garment, but they shouldn’t be so much the focus,” Forrest said, emphasizing that a consistent ethic of life provides the best groundwork for pacifism.

He noted that the Papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae used the term “conscientious objection” regarding the duty of Catholics to resist unethical work in their careers, such as performing abortions, and that the encyclical clearly condemned all violence against human life. Those in attendance agreed that these conscientious objectors should also be supported.

Pacifism, however, is a term too often misunderstood, Forrest said, noting that unfortunately, many pacifists articulate their values in a primarily negative context that seems to simply say “I’m not going to get my hands bloody like that.” Rather, he said, Catholic pacifists ought to embrace a “proactive, positive perspective.”

“Our membership in the mystical Body of Christ involves how and to what we lend our bodies,” he said, noting that such involvement means not just a refusal to participate in evil, but an active and enthusiastic support of the good.

Under the shadow of September 11, with garish TV images of crashing airplanes, blazing towers and bloodied, screaming, soot-black faces still numbingly fresh in our minds, an authentic pacifist outlook is a difficult one indeed. Dorothy Day’s summons for Catholics to “raise up a mighty battalion of conscientious objectors” contrasts starkly with the call to arms that has whipped the country to patriotic frenzy in the last months, and our belief that justice served violently will only beget more violence has meant the loss of more than a few friends at this Catholic Worker.

As we pray for peace on earth this New Year, we remember that as Christians, it is the weapons of the Spirit, of the Church, that we are given, and not those of State. As Dorothy said, if we are unwilling to use these, then we may arm ourselves and prepare for war.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 1, January-February 2002.