Saying No to Caesar: St. Marcellus lecture, Notre Dame

the relics of St Marcellus are in the altar of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame

Saint Marcellus lecture, delivered by Jim Forest at the University of Notre Dame 29 October 2017

Tomorrow is the feast of a saint who was once famous but isn’t widely known today, Saint Marcellus of Tangiers, a Christian martyr who was beheaded in the year 298 during the reign of the emperor Diocletian. In some strange providence, it happens that relics of St. Marcellus have ended up half a planet away from north Africa, right here in South Bend, Indiana, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, placed within the high altar of the church in which we are gathered, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

St. Marcellus, a centurion, needn’t have died — it was due to what many sensible people would judge his imprudence, his foolishness, that he put his head on the chopping block.

It takes only a few sentences to tell the story. His unit was celebrating Diocletian’s birthday with a party. It must have been a very festive event. One can imagine the fervent, promotion-seeking toasts. The emperor was regarded as a god or at least the instrument of the gods who favored Rome and the vast areas under its rule. Surely sobriety quickly bit the dust. Everyone was having a good time. But suddenly Centurion Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced the celebration — in effect disparaging the deification of rulers. Tearing off his insignia of rank, Marcellus cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.” This did not go down well with his military audience. Marcellus was immediately arrested and put in prison. The party proceeded without him. A few shocked friends must have wondered if Marcellus had lost his mind.

St Marcellus

Far from recanting, at his trial Marcellus freely confessed that he had done what his accusers charged him with and acknowledged that his mind was unchanged. The trial record quotes Marcellus as declaring to his judge, “It is not right for a Christian, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Marcellus was beheaded on the 30th of October in 298. His last recorded words, in fact a prayer, were addressed to the official — very likely a friend — who had ordered his execution: “May God be good to you, Agricolan.”

It’s no surprise that Marcellus is one of the patron saints of conscientious objectors, not only those who refuse to kill in war but anyone who refuses to take human life, full stop, whether in the womb or at any stage of life. Such people give witness to the much-ignored commandment entrusted by God to Moses: “You shall not kill.”

I think it’s fair to say that, for a great many Christians, saints like Marcellus are an embarrassment. After all being a soldier is an honorable vocation. Didn’t the Church long ago make its peace with war? Bishops and priests have blessed countless weapons of war and mounted pulpits to praise war and honor its warriors. We have had crusades blessed by popes and led by cardinals. We’ve had inquisitions, burned those judged heretics at the stake, and even dared describe some wars as holy. In western Christianity, beginning in the period of Ambrose and Augustine, we have a just war doctrine. True, if that doctrine is taken seriously, it invalidates the vast majority of wars ever fought, but when was the last time a bishop warned those in his pastoral care not to take part in a war because it failed to meet the conditions of a just war? America, ‘I can think of only one, Bishop John Michael Botean, who issued a pastoral letter condemning the Iraq invasion and warned his flock not to participate in it. But Bishop Botean is a hardly known bit player in the American hierarchy, responsible for nineteen Romanian Catholic parishes. (Not surprisingly, he is a longtime friend of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.)

For those whose identity is tightly bound to their nationality, Jesus is not, let’s admit, the ideal savior. There are many Christians who would prefer a different, tougher, more red-white-and-blue Jesus Christ. The Jesus we actually have just doesn’t measure up. He killed no one, blessed no wars and waved no flags. He wasn’t a patriot. He didn’t pledge allegiance. The Apostles were just as bad. The total number of people killed by the Apostles is also zero. They too failed to bless any wars or take part in them. One of the early theologians, Clement of Alexandria, described the Church as “an army that sheds no blood.” In those first centuries after Christ, one could say this as a simple matter of fact. But that was a long time ago.

Ought we not to ask ourselves if we really want to call ourselves Christians? Do we want to be followers of a man who is no one’s enemy? Who calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them? Who, in the Beatitudes, blesses not the war makers but the peace makers? Whose last healing miracle before his crucifixion was to repair the wounded ear of one of the men, an enemy, who came to arrest him? Who not only failed to praise Peter for his brave effort to defend Jesus from an enemy but reprimanded him? “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” he said to the chief of the Apostles.

Marcellus took all this to heart. Jesus shaped his life. It’s a life that reminds me of a sentence from the Jesuit poet and priest Daniel Berrigan: “If you want to be follow Jesus you had better look good on wood.”

In this militarized world, Marcellus is a challenge to each of us. He is one of the saints who, in an especially focused way, reminds us that our primary obedience is to the kingdom of God, in which there is no slaughter and indeed in which everyone is a conscientious objector.

All this began to come clear in my own life while I was serving in the U.S. Navy. In that period of my life, I was seriously considering making the military a career. I liked the work I was doing — after graduating from the Navy Weather School I had been assigned to the U.S. Weather Service in Washington. I liked and respected the people with whom I was working. I was on track to become an officer. The problem was that I was also in the midst of becoming a Christian. In November 1960, just as I was being promoted to third class petty officer, I was received into the Catholic Church. On the one hand I was reading books on meteorology and on the other reading books by such authors as Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. I was reading the Gospels closely and found the life Christ proposed to his disciples centered on love rather than enmity, the works of mercy rather than the works of war, conversion rather than coercion. It finally became clear to me that a career in the Navy wasn’t what God was calling me to.

What brought my brief military career to an early end was my incautiously deciding to take part in a silent vigil in front of a government building in downtown Washington protesting the CIA-arranged Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in the spring of 1961.

To make a long story short, I was fortunate to obtain an early discharge on grounds of conscientious objection. I left the Navy and joined the Catholic Worker community in New York, a border-crossing event that has shaped the rest of my life. But I have no regrets about the part of my life spent in uniform. I got to know several of the best people I’ve ever encountered. One of them, my executive officer, Commander John Marabito, a devout Catholic, probably never got his promotion to captain as a result of the support he gave me. Our commanding officer was furious.

The steps I took at the time were in part influenced by my awareness of such saints as Marcellus, who paid with their lives for their refusal to put duty to Caesar ahead of discipleship to Jesus. Marcellus challenged me, and challenges each of us, to consider — or reconsider — what direction we should go in life. He challenges us to put love of God and neighbor ahead of fear and ambition.

I mentioned the role fear plays in our lives. It’s a huge topic. “The root of war is fear,” wrote Thomas Merton in the first essay he submitted for publication in The Catholic Worker in the Fall of 1961. It was an essay that got him into a lot of hot water.

Fear not only makes us look at those around us with half-closed eyes but drives us to make vocational choices based on anxieties about future income rather than work that truly suits us, does no harm, and is rooted in our best self and embedded in a well-formed conscience. The best work we can do is life preserving and life enhancing. One should be able to read without shame Christ’s summary of the works of mercy: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me, homeless and you welcomed me, sick and you cared for me, in prison and you came to visit me… I tell you solemnly, what you did to the least person you did to me.”

I mentioned the many ways in which much of Christianity, during the past fifteen or sixteen centuries, made its peace with war. But it pleases me that this is changing. One of the remarkable processes going on within the Catholic Church — to single out the largest Christian entity and, along with the Orthodox Church, the oldest — is the fact that what was typical of the early Church is steadily regaining ground in the Church today.

A dramatic early indication of this change was the publication in 1963 of the encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) by Pope John XXIII, now Saint John XXIII. Its release was front-page news in many countries. The thicker newspapers published extensive excerpts; some, like The New York Times, published the full text. Before long major conferences centering on Pacem in Terris were organized in many countries. Pope John was seen as having provided a bill of rights and duties for the human race.

Such unprecedented reception was due in part to this being the first encyclical addressed not only to Church members but to “all people of good will.” Here was a pope who, in the last months of his life, made an appeal for peace and did so at a time when millions of people were aware that they would more likely die of nuclear war than of illness or old age. It is fair to say that Pacem in Terris helped prevent a cataclysmic third world war, though it is still the case that such a war remains possible and, in present circumstances, not unlikely.

The primary human right, Pope John pointed out, the right without which no other right has any meaning, is the right to life. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war, peacemaking is among the very highest and most urgent human callings.

One of Pope John’s major themes in his encyclical was conscience. “The world’s Creator,” he said in the opening section, “has stamped our inmost being with an order revealed to us by our conscience; and our conscience insists on our preserving it.” Quoting from St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, he added, “Human beings show the work of the law written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to them.” (Rom 2:15)

The pope went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or the relationship of the person to the state. “Hence,” he wrote, “a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides mankind with no effective incentive to work for the common good.”

“Authority,” John continued, “is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every person has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all people are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for God alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence, representatives of the State have no power to bind people in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.” [48, 49]

In case the reader missed the implications, Pope John pointed out that laws that violate the moral order have no legitimacy and do not merit our obedience:

“Governmental authority … is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men.’ … A law which is at variance with reason is to that extent unjust and has no longer the rationale of law. It is rather an act of violence. … Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.” [51, 61]

The time is urgent, Pope John noted. All of us are living “in the grip of constant fear …. afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of … weapons [of mass destruction]. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that [nuclear] war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.” [111]

Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just: “People nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms…. This conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rightsi.” [italics added]

Pacem in Terris can be seen as an urgent appeal to governments, on the one hand, to work toward nuclear disarmament, and to individuals, on the other, not to obey orders which would make the person an accomplice to so great a sin as wars in which the innocent are the principal victims.

It was also Pope John who, early in his pontificate, and to the astonishment of many members of the College of Cardinals, had announced preparations for a Second Vatican Council. He did so in the hope that such a work of renewal would, as he put it, “restore the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth.”

The fourth and last session of the Council, held in 1965, took up the challenge of Pacem in Terris/, developing and expanding many of its themes in Gaudium et Spes, the Latin words for “joy and hope” with which the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World/ begins. Its publication on the 7th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI was the Council’s final action. But work on this text — known in its drafting stages as Schema 13 — was far from easy. Cardinal Fernando Cento remarked that “no other [Council] document had aroused so much interest and raised so many hopes.” [The Third Session, Rhynne, p 116-7] And, one could add, such controversy.

One of the significant achievements of the Council is the definition of conscience contained in Gaudium et Spes:

“In the depths of conscience, the human being detects a law which we do not impose upon ourselves, but which holds us to obedience. Always summoning each of us to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to our hearts more specifically: do this, shun that. For each person has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is our very dignity; according to it we will be judged. Conscience is our most secret core and sanctuary. There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of humankind in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution of the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” [section 16]

It follows that conscientious objection to participation in war ought to be universally recognized. Gaudium et Spes endorsed that objective in this passage: “It seems right that laws make humane provision for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the community in some other way.” (section 79.2)

The treatment of conscience marked a major turning point in Catholic teaching. Even during World War II, Catholics on all sides had been told to obey their rulers and had been assured that, were they made party to sin by their obedience, the blame would lie with their rulers rather than with themselves.

But in Gaudium et Spes, those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were praised:

“We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.”

Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless to death were described as “criminal,” while the courage of those who disobey commands to participate in genocidal actions were described as meriting “supreme commendation.”

Though I am no expert on what went on behind the scenes as Guadium et Spes was being drafted, I do know some aspects of the story. Let me draw your attention to just one of these.

The first draft of Schema 13, eventually to become Guadium et Spes, was in circulation well over a year before the final text was approved by the bishops and signed by Pope Paul. During those months, not only were bishops and theologians present in Rome engaged in the debate, but so were others in distant parts of the world, including Thomas Merton, one of the most widely read Catholic authors of the twentieth century.

One of those quite attentive to Merton’s writings was John XXIII. Merton had begun writing to the pope just two weeks after his election in 1958. In a remarkable gesture, in April 1960, the Pope had shown his personal respect and affection for Merton by sending him, care of a Venetian friend, one of his papal stoles. (It can be seen at the Thomas Merton Center, located at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.)

One of Merton’s letters to John XXIII may have been a factor in the pope’s decision to write Pacem in Terris. Writing to the pope in November 1961, Merton spoke of the “grave threat” of nuclear war. The “lack of understanding, ignorance and violent and subtle propaganda … conspire together to create a very unsettling mood in the United States” with the result that “many hate communist Russia with a hatred that implies the readiness to destroy this nation.” War and preparation for war had now become so embedded in the economy that, for many people, disarmament would cause financial ruin. “Sad to say,” Merton continued, “American Catholics are among the most war-like, intransigent and violent.” Monsignor Loris Capovilla, the pope’s private secretary, later noted that John XXIII was especially impressed by this letter. [The Hidden Ground of Love, p 486]

After John’s death, Merton began an equally substantial correspondence with his successor, Paul VI. One of the papers Merton sent to Paul VI was a copy of an open letter on Schema 13 that Merton had addressed to members of the American hierarchy. It was written in the summer of 1965, just before the final session of the Council began. In his letter Merton urged the American bishops to embrace the opportunity provided by Schema 13 to challenge widespread belief in “the primacy of power and of violence.”

“We must,” he stated, “be resolutely convinced that this is one area in which the Church is bound not only to disagree with ‘the world’ in the most forceful terms, but intervene as a providentially designated force for peace and reconciliation. We must clearly recognize that the Church remains perhaps the most effective single voice speaking for peace in the world today. That voice must not be silenced or made ineffective by any ambiguity born of political and pragmatic considerations on the part of national groups.”

Merton reminded his readers that in time of war “the average citizen” feels he “has no choice but to support his government and bear arms if called upon to do so,” as was seen in World War II with the non-resisting participation of German Catholics “in a war effort that has since revealed itself to have been a monstrously criminal and unjust aggression.” He also noted that, even on the side fighting Hitler’s armies, “those who defended their nations in a manifestly just resistance … eventually found themselves … cooperating in acts of total, indiscriminate and calculatedly terroristic destruction which Christian morality cannot tolerate.”

Merton deserves a share of the credit for the fact that Gaudium et Spes contains a solemn condemnation, the only formal condemnation issued by the Second Vatican Council:

“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”

This one-sentence condemnation focuses on one aspect of major threats against life. It connects with this longer declaration:

“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where human beings are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, doing more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” [27]

Soon after the Council ended, Paul VI addressed the United Nations General Assembly. On the 4th of October, 1965, the feast St. Francis of Assisi, he gave powerful support to an organization whose main purpose is to make war less likely. The most memorable moment in his speech came when he spoke of the horrors of war. With deep emotion in his voice, he pleaded, “No more war! War never again! It is peace, peace that must guide the destiny of the peoples of the world and of all humanity.… If we wish to be brothers, let the weapons of war fall from our hands.”

Between publication of Pacem in Terris and the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes, the Catholic Church made a giant step toward becoming once again the church that shaped the conscience of such saints at Marcellus the Centurion. It could no longer be presumed that obedience to national leaders would be the automatic response of faithful Catholics, a fact that helps explain widespread Catholic resistance to war in subsequent years and also the fact that the largest number of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War were Catholics.

The challenge of Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes remains with us, as does the challenge of all those martyrs, men and women like Marcellus, whose lives were cut short because their obedience to Christ gave them the courage to say no to Caesar.

Saint Marcellus, pray for us.

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text as of 11 October 2017
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