Catholic view of conscription (the draft)

I was thinking about this issue recently and was wondering if anyone here knows of any Church teaching when it comes to conscription or as we in America have come to know it, the draft. And when I speak of conscription I mean it as the forcing of citizens of a particular country into military service.

I did some research and was not able to find anything conclusive, I read a statement from the old USCCB website (here: ) published in 1980 that seemed to oppose conscription in most instances with an exception for national emergency. But as far as I know the USCCB itself is not authoritative doctrinally, correct?

I also came upon an old WW1 era article about the Vatican’s supposed position on conscription in the context of WW1 at least (here:,4379327) and the position the article presents is decidedly negative.

I really couldn’t find much else, but was wondering if anyone on CAF had some ideas.

Just from a moral point of view I wonder how conscription could be considered moral. Does the state have the right to take you away from your family or those who are dependent on you to put you into military service? That seems to be the specific compelling moral issue here. If the state insists on waging war, are the citizens compelled to comply with conscription? In the case of unjust war it would seem that people would be justified in not complying, but what about in the case of just war? Say a war of legitimate self defense, are the people morally permitted to refuse conscription? If say the odds are so overwhelming that the state just seems to be vain and willing to send their citizens to die in a pointless effort just to send a message to their inevitable conquerers, would they be in the right to refuse service and instead tend to their family responsibilities?

The words that seems to often be used to justify the authority of the state are “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…” But does this even apply when it comes to conscription? Does the human life belong to Caesar? And if conscription is right, and the government claims you as its own, then how does this not open a pathway for people to call paid slavery legitimate, where someone is drafted into a position of labor, gets paid, but isn’t allowed to say no or leave until the government lets them. If for example someone says this argument is ridiculous because conscription is usually for danger and labor isn’t, but let’s say labor is conscripted due to a famine and the state deems it a critical issue and so drafts laborer and forces them to work certain farms, how is this substantially different from protecting the country from an external threat by the same means?

This is a similar to argument to one I read here about the issue:

These are some of the issues at play and I was wondering if there is anything definitive on this issue and if not, then what your views are on this.

I think I would be a bit of a hopeless soldier really.

Pope Francis is an Argentinian. We Brits gave the Argentinians a good hiding over the Falklands. Catholic Brits and Catholic Argentinians killing each other. It makes no sense to me.

The founder of Pope Francis' order was wounded in such a battle between the French troops under another Francis, François I. I have great hope that his spiritual son from Argentina will prove as much a gift to the Church!

I was in the US Military from 1954 to 1958 , in the reserves from 1958 until 1963, while in University, and then from 1963 until 1970. I was both an enlisted man and an Officer.
It has been my experience that most of the anti-war males I have come across in the US are self centered and think more about their personal comfort and safety than they do for the needs of their country. These are the same people as adults complain constantly about “the government” but rarely bother to vote. In short, they are sponges.
American Society suffered greatly for the excesses and lack of morality in the 1960’s and is just now recovering from it. Unfortunately, it is the young who will pay for the “sins of their fathers” come a future international conflageration.
The US government and its military organizations have very long memories. And they, unlike most Americans, learn from past history. If and when there is another major war (neither Iraq nor Afghanistan can be considered as such), public anti-war dissent such as we had in the 1960’s will not be tolerated-no matter who is the President or which party is in power in Congress. It will be just like WW I or WW II, where if you objected to serve in the military, you had a choice between being a Hospital Corpsman in a front line combat unit, or going to prison “for the duration”. There were no exceptions. As for dissenters, they were silenced by a variety of means, including prison. And, yes there will be universal conscription. The only difference between the new conscription and former drafts will be that this time women will have to register and be drafted. There will be no exceptions except for pregnancy or serious physical impediments such as being a cripple or being blind. And just because daddy has political clout will not be enough to get someone an exemption, just as it was in both World Wars.
Never forget that during the first six weeks of the American Civil War, Lincoln abrogated the Bill of Rights, and closed over 100 newspapers and imprisoned over 150 Editors and Reporters, most of whom were not released until 1865. And, do not forget that many dissenting civilians were not tried in civilian courts of law, but by military courts martials. In fact, John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspiritors in Lincolns assisaination were tried by military courts martial, convicted and hung by the Army. No appeal being allowed…and this was some time after Lee had surrendered and the war was over.

The Catechism states that civil authorities may draft their Citizens. It also says that there should be a conscientious objector status for those who are morally opposed to the war, since the just war doctrine does not give absolute answers for individual wars. Most WWI powers had no conscientious objector status and the United States only grants such status to absolute pacifists.

Where in the catechism does it say this? I have never seen such a passage.

Catechism #2310-2311

Thank you! Then I suppose that settles it.

The draft was still in effect when I joined the Air Force. In fact, the USAF recruiter called me up to let me know that my number was coming up the following week. He thought I would like the USAF better than the Army. I thought he was right. So I went right down and signed up immediately.

Now, here’s what I thought was good about the draft:

It ensured a wide cross section of enlistees and draftees. A lot wider selection and variety of people than one gets from an all volunteer force.

I met many people in the USAF that I would never have known or even associated with otherwise. It was a good learning experience, not only from my own specialty area (who in civilian life specializes in ICBM’s?), but also in the variety of people I met, including one who was a staunch pacifist, all varieties of religious persuasions, many ethnicities (including one guy of Japanese descent who was born in a U.S. internment camp during WW-II–thank you FDR) at least one Ayn Randian, and a disc jockey who worked part time in a local radio station.

Without the draft, I think, it would have been a more boring and conformist experience. And of course, I wouldn’t have been there. But I’m glad I was.

I thought a great deal about my country as a child in the 1960s & wondered very much, from the time I was five, what would happen when I was drafted. I was in the first class that had to register for a possible draft after the Vietnam War & had to ask, then, whether I could kill someone Christ had died for on the basis of a command from people who, very clearly, had something other than the eternal welfare of either their soldiers, opposing soldiers, or civilian populations that would get in the way. As for voting, I vote in every election & consider it the best service of my country not to believe politicians who wave the flag and damn as unpatriotic those who find fault with their misjudgments.

American Society suffered greatly for the excesses and lack of morality in the 1960’s and is just now recovering from it.

Certainly not in the random massacres of children at their desks in college or elementary schools.

Unfortunately, it is the young who will pay for the “sins of their fathers” come a future international conflageration.
The US government and its military organizations have very long memories. And they, unlike most Americans, learn from past history.

They heeded neither de Gaulle nor MacArthur in getting involved in Vietnam, and failed to consult even recent history when they went gung-ho into Afghanistan. They might have asked some Russian veterans about that.

If and when there is another major war (neither Iraq nor Afghanistan can be considered as such), public anti-war dissent such as we had in the 1960’s will not be tolerated-no matter who is the President or which party is in power in Congress.

Given the utterly uncritical acceptance of the invasion of Iraq and the immensely successful campaign of vilification and lies aimed at its opponents, or the spouses of those who had information detrimental to its prosecution, that’s hardly warranted. It was easy to panic the public into a stampede of support with the kind of campaign that would have done credit to Goebbels.

Ya, It’s amazing how people can on the one hand go on about how free America is, and then on the other hand gladly admit that she will become borderline totalitarian whenever it suits her interest.

Still, before making definitive judgments about the Vietnam War, I would recommend a study of this book.

I was referring to George’s view of how the government should handle the next war.

I didn’t know that the United States has a draft / conscription going on.

Yes, my comment was not really applicable. Still, the book I referenced is a good study of a particular war. I recall his recounting of the offer of asylum and protection that the U.S. made to the Cambodian ambassador. He refused, saying he would not abandon his country even though the U.S. Congress abandoned its promises. He was subsequently killed by the Khmer Rouge.

As to the draft, I think it gave us a better military than otherwise, but I suspect that few will agree.

I may be a little late to this post, but I think this serves as a guide as well

This is from Pope Benedict XV

Benedicat Deus

I realized that you had already viewed WWI stuff. Sorry!

Anyway, the general attitude of the Church towards conscription has been negative, at best. We cannot oppose it from the libertarian viewpoint which states that the state cannot coerce, since it can. However, most often, the objective of conscription is to promote militarism, which has been condemned most severely by the Church many times. Also, it would be wrong to do something which takes away freedom, when one can do that thing without taking away freedom. Thirdly, many of the wars in which the modern world has engaged in have been condemned by the Church, and since conscription, which dates from the decidedly anti-Catholic French Revolution, has really only been in place since then, the Church has usually condemned conscription, since the war it is being used for is unjust. As Catechism 2310 notes, however, it may not be totally unjust to conscript people for a national emergency, when volunteers are not enough, however, this is not common today and therefore, it is safe to assume that conscription is basically immoral.

As to the idea that the draft promotes militarism, my experience was just the opposite. Draftees are there for a limited term, and have no particular interest in promoting the adventures of a militaristic government. They are more of a leavening force that widens the viewpoint of the military. Even draftees who decide to stay and make a career of military service bring a diversity of viewpoints which the military would otherwise lack. And they vote, as do their friends and relatives.

As an aside to the main topic: In regards to Argentina and the Falkland War, the Argentine leaders that caused the war were Catholic in name only. They were the same ones that caused the “dirty war” against their civilian population. In truth, they were murders of their own people.
They caused the war because they thought that it would take the Argentinian peoples minds away from their depredations against them. These politicians and their Military leadership thought that the British Lion had no teeth. This may be true, but they found the British Lion sure had claws!
The Cruiser they sent to sea against the British, the one that was sunk, was a beautiful show piece. It glistened like a yacht, with her perfect paint job and polished brass. However, its weapons systems had not been updated since they got the ship from the US after WW II, and they thought they were doing good if they had gunnery practice with live ammunition more than once a year!
That ship was no match for any modern surface warship, not to say a modern submarine! Because of this, a couple of thousand Argentinian Sailors lost their lives. The Admiral(s) who sent that ship out to sea sure as hell murdered them.

With regards to the subject of military conscription: As US citizens and resident aliens, all males of military age during war are subject to Conscription. In practice, only fathers of large families, those ingaged in work critical to the war effort (like shipyard and arms factory workers), convicted felons, and the mentally of physically disabled are exempt. Notice that I didn’t include Concious Objectors. They can and are drafted, but they will serve in a non-combative capicity, like as medical corpsmen. If they refused, they usually are sent to prison for the duration. Many were during WW I and II, Korea and Viet Nam.
If the US ever gets into a situation that they had to re-institute the draft again, like a major war with Iran and its Allies where we had a total or partial national mobilization, Washington would not tolerate an ant-war movement ala the 1960’s, and protestors and refusniks would soon find themselves in prison. Likewise, the mass media would be supressed.
Don’t say it wouldn’t happen. It did happen in the American Civil War, WW I, WW II and Korea !
And, by the way, The only war that the US fought that the Vatican protested against and asked our President not to fight was the Spanish American War! The Pope was afraid that the Spanish would defeat the US and that the Protestants in America would blame their Catholic Countrymen for the defeat and turn against them. As it turned out, the Spanish Government was resting on past laurels and was militarily inept and nothing more that a paper tiger. The war was over in 4 months and they lost most of their Navy and all of their remaining Colonies in South America and the Far East.

I wonder how the Church would view the current volunteer U.S Army–which stays fully staffed by paying a fair, free market wage–in contrast to the Vietnam era servicemen who were forced to serve, and forced at wages far less than would have been required to get volunteers.

I guess what I am saying is that conscription seems simply a cheap way for a government to wage wars without having to pay for the cost. It seems that the society as a whole is simply stealing from the conscripts to save themselves money. I’m not even talking about the morality of training young men to kill other young men with whom they have no personal quarrel, just the morality of using violence to force the unwilling to fight when paying a fair wage would avoid the coercion.

This was a debate we went through after the Vietnam war.
“In the course of his [General Westmoreland’s] testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I [Milton Friedman] stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.’ I replied, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.’ But I went on to say, ‘If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.’ That was the last that we heard from the general about mercenaries.”

[RIGHT]- Milton and Rose Friedman, Two Lucky People, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 380.[/RIGHT]I can see the time when the government can no longer afford a volunteer army and this issue raises its ugly head again. Even though the Catechism allows for a draft, that assumes a just war and arguably no war fought in my lifetime would qualify.

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