For more than fifteen hundred years, the venerable "just war tradition" has helped responsible Christians think through the many moral problems involved in deciding to go to war and in the conduct of war itself - and to do so in ways that recognize the distinctive realities of warfare. That this tradition "lives" in our cultural memory is demonstrated by the fact that Americans have, instinctively, been debating the future of the war against terrorism and the possible use of military force against outlaw states with weapons of mass destruction in classic just war categories: What just cause would justify putting U.S. armed forces, and the American homeland, in harm's way?
On Saturday, 8 May 2004, after many years of preparation--much of it done through personal prayer, reading, reflection, and publication--I was ordained to the permanent diaconate of the Catholic Church by Most Reverend Michael J. Sheridan, the Bishop of Colorado Springs. With great kindness and pastoral concern, Bishop Sheridan had agreed to do the ordination at Our Lady of the Skies, the beautiful Cadet Catholic Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy where, at the time, I was serving as Visiting Chair of Character Development.
Bishop Sheridan's graciousness was complemented by the thoughtfulness of "my" bishop, Most Reverend Oscar H. Lipscomb, Archbishop of Mobile; he had been patient and encouraging as I sought ordination in Colorado Springs for service, soon to be, in my home of Montgomery , Alabama , which is in the Archdiocese of Mobile. If, however, that seems complicated, there is another critical part of this ordination story-the understanding and support of Most Reverend Edwin F. O'Brien, Archbishop for the Military Services.
The Academy Chapel, in fact, is part of the Military Archdiocese, and Bishop Sheridan wanted the "advice and consent" of Archbishop O'Brien for the ordination Mass to take place there-as well as the "advice and consent" of my home bishop, Archbishop Lipscomb, who would soon have me back in Alabama .
The ordination of a deacon is--or certainly should be--a matter of great concern to the deacon candidate, who passes from lector to acolyte to deacon, at each stage petitioning the bishop for the privilege of serving in the "minor ministries" and then, finally, asking to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Bishops, very understandably, have a great deal more to be concerned about than the aspirations of a single deacon candidate. It is a matter, therefore, of some astonishment (and of solemn pride) to me that these three gracious bishops actually discussed my circumstances and went ahead with the ordination.
The ordination itself--with the Cadet Catholic choir providing beautiful music for the Mass--is happily burned into my memory: choosing the readings for the Mass; lying prostrate while the litany of saints was sung; taking sacred vows while kneeling before Bishop Sheridan; being vested with stole and dalmatic by my pastor, Air Force Chaplain R. Martin Fitzgerald; then serving as Deacon of the Mass, including being able to incense both the bishop and the congregation; and raising the Chalice with the Precious Blood during the consecration-there are no words to describe the blessing and privilege and solemnity of the sacrament.
Three days later, after the 0620 Mass on Monday morning, Father Fitzgerald was to do a baptism for a young Air Force enlisted couple. The Godparents of their little baby girl were to be in town only for a short time, and Father Fitzgerald had agreed to the baptism, which was planned for 0650 that morning. In the meantime, however, Father learned that the Air Force Catholic chaplains' retreat was to be held that week, requiring that he leave at once after Mass to get to the Colorado Springs airport for departure. There was no problem, though, he thought: Deacon Toner could do the baptism. "Sure," I thought. Then I panicked: Me? Alone?
Of course, I had gone over the "Rite of Baptism for Children" many times.
But I thought that, when I did my first baptism, I would have a friendly priest right there with me. Father Fitzgerald assured me that it would be fine. Theologically, I knew that God would make right anything I inadvertently did "wrong" (it's called ex opere operato, by the way), but I wanted everything to go perfectly. I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed.
The couple, the Godparents, and the little baby girl, however, did not show up. I waited ten, twenty, thirty, forty minutes. I sighed, extinguished the candles, put away the sacred oils, and removed my stole and dalmatic. I left the Cadet Chapel on my way to a much-delayed breakfast. As I was locking the door, the family arrived, apologizing for their tardiness. Hmmm:
a lecture on punctuality or a spirit of service? Maybe it was the grace of the ordination that helped me choose the latter. So on again came the alb and stole and dalmatic; out again came the oils; and lit again were the candles.
I tried to provide a little guidance and instruction about this wonderful sacrament, which is indeed the "seal of eternal life," (Catechism #1274) and I explained how little Jenna Nicole was receiving, as a child, the "grace and gift of God" (#1282) and joining the family of God. From the Rite, I read the beautiful line: "the Christian community welcomes you [Jenna Nicole] with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross."
A lump about the size of a golfball, I think, came into my throat. I swallowed very hard.
Thank God, I was able to continue, but I was momentarily stunned by what I was doing! I was claiming this little girl for Our Lord and for His Church.
I guess I knew that, through the power of the ordination, I could do that as a deacon (as, of course, any of us can in an emergency). But I cannot adequately describe the flood of emotion that overtook me as I proceeded with the sacrament I was so privileged to offer in the name of Christ and of Holy Mother Church .
After the baptism, while I held little Jenna Nicole, I told the parents and Godparents I was a 58-year-old deacon. I asked them how many baptisms they thought I had done in my "career." Forty, they said; no, it must be closer to 100; no, perhaps 250! "One," I said, pointing at this newly baptized little girl. I added that she will always be in prayers-as she certainly will be. The family seemed quite pleased with it all. I hope so.
Later in the day I sent the parents a card, thanking them for the sacred privilege of being able to baptize their little girl and telling them that the greatest gift they could ever give her is to love each other truly and deeply. I do not know how many baptisms God will send my way, but the sentiments expressed on the card I sent to these parents I will send in other cards, at other times, to the parents of every other baby I baptize.
That may even include some of my own grandchildren-now there is a joyful thought!
My ministry as a deacon, I hope, will for many years be at the Catholic Chapel at Maxwell AFB, permitting me to work with the military families I love. In St. Paul 's first letter to Timothy, we read: "I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry" (1:12). One is never worthy of Holy Orders; one is never worthy of baptizing little children like Jenna Nicole, or adults; one is never worthy of the Blessed Sacrament-"Domine, non sum dignus" (cf. Mt 8:8)-but we all must try the very best we can to grow in holiness.
At the end of Mass, it is the deacon who announces that we are to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. That is our charge; that is our calling; that is our purpose and our fulfillment. I am ever grateful to three bishops who made possible for me this sacrament, and I hope, for many years now, to show that gratitude in action to military families. What a joy it is to serve Christ and His Church as a deacon!
His books include The American Military Ethic: A Meditation (1992), The Sword and the Cross: Reflections on Command and Conscience (1993); True Faith and Allegiance: The Burden of Military Ethics (1995), and Morals Under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society (2000). A graduate of Infantry OCS and of the airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia, Dr. Toner served as an Army officer on active duty from 1968-1972, principally in USAREUR, and was honorably discharged in 1974.
He has published widely--articles, reviews, monographs, essays, and columns--in scores of scholarly journals, popular magazines, and newspapers, and he frequently serves as a consultant for religious, military, media, educational, and athletic leaders. He holds the A.B. from St. Anselm College (Manchester, NH), the A.M. from The College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA), and the Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, IN). In 2000-2001, he was selected to write on ethics as a panelist for the nationally important Army Professionalism Study, which met at West Point, NY, three times in 2001. Dr. Toner's essay on reconciling Christian ethics with contemporary duty was selected for inclusion in the resulting volume, The Future of the Army Profession, published by McGraw-Hill in April 2002.
He has coached baseball at the college, high school, and youth league levels. His principal area of teaching and research interest lies in moral and political philosophy, military ethics, and character education. He has published widely in the Catholic press and appeared on EWTN. He and his wife Rebecca are parents of three grown sons and grandparents of six. An ordained deacon, he serves the Catholic military community at Maxwell Air Force Base/Gunter Annex in Montgomery, Alabama. (25Jun04)
"The duty of [political] obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good will" (Catholic Catechism #1900). While speaking at a chaplains' conference recently, I was asked a difficult question by an Air Force chaplain, a Catholic priest: "What do you say to an airman whose conscience tells him that this [Iraqi] war is unjust?" Knowing exactly what to render to Caesar and exactly what to render to God is spiritually and politically vexing, for, as St. Augustine told us, we are citizens both of the City of Man and of the City of God, and we are expected "to pull double duty."
Gideon (in Judges 8:23), when he was asked to be the ruler of the Israelites, responded: “I will not be your ruler, nor will my son. The Lord will be your ruler.” The first book of Samuel, however, tells how the Israelites, although freed from bondage by Yahweh, not only kept turning from Him (a constant Old Testament theme), but now were asking for a king so that they could be like other countries. Samuel attempted to explain to the people the dangers of a king, who could easily become tyrannical (8:4-22; see also 12:13-17), but they persisted. Samuel assured the people of God’s enduring mercy (in 12:22, the key Old Testament theme) and adjured them never to “turn away [again] from the Lord, but serve him with all your heart” and not to go after false gods because “they cannot help you or serve you, for they are not real” (vv. 21-22). There is the biblical introduction to our competing duties.
We are, first, “citizens of heaven” (Phil 3:20), and we are, in a sense, visitors on earth for only a short time. Second, we have duties as citizens (or as “subjects” of the king). When we, as Americans, “pledge allegiance to the flag . . . and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” we commit ourselves to work for the best interests of our country. This is sometimes referred to as “social justice”: “The exercise of authority is measured morally in terms of its divine origin, its reasonable nature, and its specific content. No one can command or establish what is contrary to the dignity of persons and the natural law” (CCC #2235). But when the laws of civil society are in harmony with the natural law, we have the duty to contribute to the good of our country “in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom.” Although America must never be confused with the Almighty, whom Samuel tells us to serve “with all [our] heart,” we do have political and, possibly, even military duties (cf. CCC #2265; cf. #2310).
For many years I have had the privilege of working with military chaplains who are building their careers in the armed service and ministering to soldiers, sailors, and airmen. At times, chaplains may encounter tension between the duty they owe to their commanders and the duties they owe to their ministry. For example, a commander may wish to know if a Catholic chaplain has heard anything in confession about a certain incident or crime. The duty of the priest is absolute: He cannot even acknowledge to the commander that he has heard the confession of the person in question, let alone comment in any way whatever upon anything he has heard under the sacramental seal. Suppose this position were to displease the commander; would that alter the chaplain’s willingness to discuss the matter (cf. Jn 12:43)? Certainly not: the priest would be excommunicated for violating the seal of the confessional-and thus would no longer be permitted to serve as military chaplain!
A number of what I term “dueling duties,” such as the tension that may exist between our sacred and our political obligations, are, in fact, not in real competition at all. Genuine freedom demands that we act in reasoned responsibility to God (cf. Gal 5:13,
1 Pt 2:16). Our duties toward all others are conditional, contingent, and contextual. My obedience to the State is expected insofar as the State’s actions are in keeping with the moral law. If, however, the civil law contradicts or contravenes the divine law, I must not obey the orders of the State. “Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry [such orders] out” (CCC #2313). I must always keep God first (cf. Acts 5:29).
“The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directions of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.” --CCC #2242.
Because we know that genuine freedom is grounded in Truth-and in the duty to Truth-we increase our ability to see as we should (cf. Mt 13:16); because we know God is our end (Sirach 7:36), we are more enabled to find right means, honorable paths, and prudential actions. “I shall keep your Law without fail for ever and ever. I shall live in all freedom because I have sought your precepts. I shall speak of your instructions before kings and will not be shamed” (Ps 119:44-46, NJB).
Nor should we ever be ashamed of being a witness for the truth in the courts of darkness: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mk 8:38). St. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom 1:16; cf. 2 Tm 1:12, 1 Pt 4:16), nor of those in his Christian community (Heb 2:11). This concept integrates the clear-sightedness, the conviction, and the courage which are the hallmarks of formed Catholic character-and thus of our American citizenship.
When we follow Christ and the teaching of His Church, we are empowered to know the truth, from which we do not flee, but which, rather, sets us free in the full sense of the word (John 8:32). Still, the workers of darkness do not want to hear about genuine freedom: “the Spirit of truth [is something] which the world cannot accept, because it neither knows sees nor knows it” (Jn 14:17). It was truth and love of genuine freedom which moved Pope Pius XI on 31 December 1930, to write the encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage). Now, about seventy-five years later, his words reverberate with those who want the truth for themselves and for their country: “Those who hold the reins of government should not forget that it is the duty of public authority by appropriate laws and sanctions to defend the lives of the innocent, and this all the more so since those whose lives are endangered and assailed cannot defend themselves. Among whom we must mention in the first place infants hidden in the mother’s womb. And if the public magistrates not only do not defend them, but by their laws and ordinances betray them to death at the hands of doctors or others, let them remember that God is the Judge and Avenger of innocent blood which cried from earth to Heaven” (#67). Those “Catholic” politicians who deny Christ and His Truth, failing in their duties to stop the mass murder known as abortion, partial-birth abortion, and euthanasia will have to answer in time to a Power far beyond that of their political constituents.
On this great national holiday, we give thanks for our freedom, and we express our deep love for this great country of ours. We pray that our country may also and always be . . . His.
James H. Toner is Professor of Ethics at the Air War College. He serves as deacon at the Maxwell AFB-Gunter Annex Catholic Chapel. He also fields questions on military ethics at CatholicMil.Org.
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How can we ever forget those who gave their lives that day or in the following years, or those who now tirelessly serve our country in positions of great risk? Is it possible that after such loss, such heroism, such focus, we could ever become complacent? Our response to these questions should be unequivocal: We are called to be a 'people of memory.'... We must uphold the memory of those men and women who suffered and died- and their friends and families- in prayer. This unity through memory, part and parcel of our faith, will protect us from complacence. In this we imitate our Heavenly Father, who never forgets us. As it is written, 'Even if these may forget, yet I will not forget you' (cf. Is. 49:15).
-- Bishop Paul S. Loverde
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