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Communion and Peace: Reflections from Rome

Sitting beneath a warm Roman sun, I rehearsed my salutation during the hours long general audience, listening to cheers and waves and greetings and reflections uttered in Italian, German, English, Polish, Spanish, and French. Tell him of your conversion to Catholicism, I thought. Of the influence of his writings. Thank him for describing violence as irrational in his Regensburg address. He’ll appreciate to hear a positive response to that one. Make it to the point, though, his aids will be just as impatient as the Italian security who kept saying “avanti, avanti” when you stopped to pray before the body of John Paul II the last time you were at St. Peter’s.

After the address, Benedict sat in his chair as cardinals and archbishops processed to him, kneeling and kissing the papal ring in customary fashion. Then finally came my moment. I tried to remember to smile, as that American priest had suggested to me after commenting on my somewhat overly serious deportment. Benedict’s delicacy, however, made smiling easy. His small stature and modest eyes softened my posture. He extended to me two gentle hands, fingers dry and chaffed. I held them wondering if his skin had been abrased from paper, academics, or perhaps from the daily rituals of Mass, the ceremonial washing of the hands, chalice and plate.

“Holy Father, my name is Joshua Casteel,” I said. “I was formerly a US Army interrogator at Abu Gh—”

“An interrogator?” he interjected with curious surprise. For a moment it even seemed as if my mention of having been an interrogator pleased him.

“—a US Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison. In Baghdad.”

His eyes wearied, looking to me more as might a father confessor. His hands felt warm. I continued my rehearsed greeting.

“I went on to become a conscientious objector. Not only did your writings help to save my faith, but they also showed me a path to nonviolence and ultimately helped bring me to the Catholic Church.”

He seemed to stare silently at me for much longer than actually we were permitted, and then tenderly he said to me, “I will pray for you.”

I reached for a writing of mine, a talk I had written about how the Magnificat and the Rosary had wounded my conscience at Abu Ghraib, which I had brought to him as a gift.

“It is my humble hope, Holy Father, that my words might bless you, as your words have blessed me,” to which he simply replied, “Thank you.” Then, as anticipated, papal aids avanti’d us on our way.

A few brief moments with the Holy Father. As a Catholic convert familiar with the writings of early Fr. Ratzinger “the reformer,” as well as a somewhat bulwarked later Cardinal Ratzinger “the inquisitor,” I wondered how it was I had just been given the opportunity to meet such a complex man, whose first papal encyclical proclaimed Deus Caritas Est. Something like a historical grief swept over me. It was an exhilarating encounter. But I was keenly aware, walking away from this gentle man of dreadful authority, that the only reason I had been afforded such an encounter was not because of who I was, one of his flock, but because of what I had once been: a military interrogator at place of supreme dehumanization. I had not come simply to speak with my shepherd. I had come to speak politics.

Such talk began with the American prelate, Cardinal James Francis Stafford, who listened intently to my accounts of legalized torture, mass false arrests and civilian casualties. I confessed to him my utter dismay at how American Catholics could continue justifying submission to such unjust political authority. “Is not our highest allegiance to the Kingdom of God?” I asked.

“Once again, it seems, we’re discussing the age old issue of nationalism,” he said.

“Eminence, it’s one thing to lobby governments to improve their policies, but in the meantime why aren’t Catholics simply told to resist?” I asked. “We’re over a billion and half of the world’s population. Our power to stop the spread of evil is simply not to do it. To refuse the offering of our bodies. And it’s not policy makers and theologians whose bodies come home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s my body.”

“You are on a noble path, Joshua. But the path is not well traveled. Caro est cardo salutis. ‘The body is the hinge of salvation,’ both your body and our Body. Learning to see an invisible kingdom is the heart of the Christian journey. Such sight, however, is not easily brought to maturity. My sentiments and prayers are with you.”

With such a warm and sagely reception, my companions from the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Michael Griffin and Tom Cornell, and I asked the Cardinal for the opportunity to meet privately with the Holy Father.

“I have to be careful not to instrumentalize him,” he respectfully cautioned us. “First and foremost he is the Universal Pastor, secondarily a man of policy. We are a Body. Personal relationships must always be our guide. And relationships only happen in the way they do: slowly, personally and with care.”

I recalled my training and work at Abu Ghraib. The textbook definition of interrogation: “exploit the greatest amount of intelligence in the least amount of time.” To be a combat interrogator is to instrumentalize persons for their utility, to transform human beings into instruments of tactical efficiency. A detainee is not a man, he is a possessor of information. The successor of St. Peter is also a man of possession, namely grave responsibility. Certainly it was and continues to be my desire to see, “in the least amount of time,” an end to bloodshed in Iraq. Yet, an instructive irony Cardinal Stafford illuminated to me was my subtle wish to instrumentalize the authority of a hierarchical institution: just tell American Catholics what to do.

In a two-hour conversation with Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher of the Papal Household known for eloquent denouncements of violence, I asked, “Why cannot the Holy Father simply order Catholics not to fight in wars deemed unjust by the Church?” A rather logical question, given the fact that the just war tradition has been effectively gutted by US policies which prohibit the quintessential requirement of just war logic: selective objection to unjust wars. Perhaps not a very practical question, however, given the response of Catholics to other moral mandates in recent history. Yet, my question was nothing more than: why have a just war tradition if Catholics serving in the armed forces, once sworn to follow orders, cannot legally refuse the order to fight in unjust wars?

Catholic shepherds ranging from Fr. Cantalamessa, to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI all decried, with language impassioned and unambiguous, the illegality, injustice, and immorality of the Iraq War, and yet the war never could have been waged were it not for the 400,000 Catholics serving in the US military and a US Congress 30% of whom profess Catholic identity. If the body is the hinge of salvation, how then ought Catholics use theirs? How ought the Church use Hers?

In his inaugural Address to the Diplomatic Corps on September 29th 2006, Cardinal Bertone provided a brief history of contemporary ecclesial responses to ancient political dilemmas, quandaries looming back to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, further problematized by the birth of modern nation states, theories of capital, and increasingly secular Enlightenment reasoning.

As to the role of diplomats and other civil servants, Cardinal Bertone said, “They must be upright and logical, believe in sincere dialogue and engage to give a new impetus to solidarity between all peoples, especially with a view to reconsidering the question of the foreign debt of the poorest countries, so that individuals and especially children will never again die of hunger or of endemic diseases, never again be the innocent victims of war or local conflict and never again be abused for their convictions or beliefs.”

Cardinal Bertone isolated the central issue of these disparate global injustices with the words of Paul VI, stressing that diplomacy “has a more direct bearing on the real and concrete problems of social life, and first and foremost on that which, one can say, regulates them all: the problem of peace” (Address to the Diplomatic Corps, 8 January 1968).

Peace through diplomacy. Or perhaps as Cardinal Stafford indicated to me: personal relationships, bodies in communion. The Catholic moral mandate – theologically, politically, personally – is to call all persons to communion; to reject, unilaterally if necessary, each and every impetus to transform persons into objects of exploitation, rejecting the instrumentalizing means-to-ends mentality which John Paul II stated was at the heart of our “culture of death.” Cardinal Bertone furthers this vision of personalism by asking whether “diplomacy” is merely an act of policy.

“ ‘These ways do not exclude but link up with one another: political and diplomatic ways that are followed by implementing agreements which foresee and forestall conflicts; juridical and institutional ways that give rise to new institutions, to guarantee peace and security; psychological and pedagogical ways,’ I say this as a Salesian, as a son of Don Bosco, ‘that aim to form a culture of peace through a wide range of educational institutions; then we have the way of witness of the great prophets of peace; the way of conscientious objection and alternative social service, and the way of non-violence.”

In perhaps one of the most forceful challenges to human solidarity since the Sermon on the Mount, Cardinal Bertone declares the immanence of the call to peace diplomacy incumbent upon those who profess the transcendent mission of the Church’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

“Research into these topics by intellectuals and reflection on them by Church bodies and Christian communities will never cease. In all these cases, the Documents of the Holy See and especially the texts of the enlightened Magisterium of the post-war Popes are neither texts to be skimmed through nor, even worse, to be ignored. They are texts that should be read with attention and meditated upon, so that their ideas can be expressed in practical action and the world can recognize the power and timeliness of the Christian message in the self-giving and courage with which Christians act, furthering peace for all humankind today.”

The ideas seem so clear, ideas which foundational Catholic doctrines such as the Incarnation and Transubstantiation would seem to guide our reasoning toward fleshly, incarnate realities, not pious abstractions. As Cardinal Bertone states, the research of intellectuals and the Documents of the enlightened Magisterium must be bound to, incarnate within, practical action. One need not be a pacifist to hear the world’s cries for an end to bloodshed. And yet bloodshed at the hands of Christians continues, and by no means infrequently.

When a man like Fr. Cantalamessa on March 11th 2005 preached to the Papal Household that the Eucharist is “God’s absolute no to violence,” and John Paul II vociferously cried, “War never again;” having seen the witness of the Church’s great conscientious objectors – St. Marcellus, St. Martin of Tours, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola; and having heard the call of that dear American woman of unbearable kindness, Dorothy Day, who prayed we might see “a mighty league of Catholic conscientious objectors to war,” how can it be that a young Catholic convert such as myself, who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and nicotine addiction, and did nothing more than attempt to lay down his sword before the Virgin Mother the same way a newly converted Ignatius once did at the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, feels it necessary yet again to call upon the Church to recall She is to be the world’s sign of peace? What does my youth, anger and pride not yet comprehend?

When St. Francis first came to Rome envisioning a new fraternity of Man, a reawakening to Christ’s Great Sermon, he was initially denied an audience with the Pope. Yet, Innocent III had a dream that very night of a beggar attempting to hold together a crumbling Church. Innocent took that beggar to be Francis, thus birthing the Order of Friars Minor, now known as the Franciscans, the children of Lady Poverty. Innocent was a man who on the one hand decried the Fourth Crusade as savagery against fellow Christians, yet also summoned the Fourth Lateran Council which promulgated the Fifth Crusade to reclaim the Holy Lands and paved the way for the Inquisition.

In 1219 Francis and a few companions made a pilgrimage of reconciliation to Egypt, where he displayed perhaps the most profound moment of “diplomacy” since Elijah’s contest with the priests of Baal. Francis was received by the Egyptian sultan, Al-Malik Mohammed Al-Kamil, and challenged the sultan’s Muslim scholars to a “proof of faith by fire.” If Francis could stand in open flame and not be harmed, Christ was the one true God. The Muslim scholars did not accept Francis’ invitation. Yet, Al-Kamil was so taken by the faith of this beggar that the sultan’s last known words to Francis were: “Pray for me that God may deign to reveal to me that law and faith which is most pleasing to him.”

In typical institutional irony, the Crusaders in Egypt thought Francis’ broader plea of nonviolence heretical and sought his head. It was, in the end, this Muslim sultan, Al-Malik Mohammed Al-Kamil, who saved Francis from the Christians who wanted him dead. Prior to his formal priestly formation, St. Ignatius had been similarly accosted by the institutional Church, twice arrested by the Spanish Inquisition for preaching without proper credentials. But, this is an old tale. “A prophet is not without honor except among his own household.”

For my part, as a young man struggling to see an invisible Kingdom, it is certainly encouraging not to have been threatened with death or arrest when asking the Holy See to take up more seriously the challenge of catechesis regarding nonviolence, formation of conscience and, most importantly, the threat which nationalism poses to the formation of Catholic (read: “Universal”) conscience on issues of obedience to local laws contrary to the moral order.

It is also encouraging to know that the current Holy Father, unlike Innocent III, has completely overthrown the medieval concept of coercive conversion, and gone far further to proclaim the utter irrationality of violence (“Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” Regensburg, September 12th 2006). Yet, current Catholic political theology still functions according to a medieval milieu and, frankly, needs to wake up and smell the Reformation. Political leaders are no longer guaranteed to be ostensibly Catholic, and thus are no longer even theoretically indebted to Catholic social teaching, much less the Gospel. So, what are individual Catholics to do?

I asked precisely this question of a monsignor from a prominent pontifical commission, to whom I had just told my own story of conversion. A quiet anxiety began to build in his face and body language. Clearly uncomfortable with the topic of conversation, he finally broke his silence.

“Why am I being lectured to?” he asked. “I have received indignant letters from politicians in the States, even my own congressman, deriding me for representing a Church that has given our country a reproach like none other in recent history.  And here you are lecturing me.  You enlisted.”

It didn’t occur to me in the moment how pedantic and insulting his exasperation eventually seemed to me hours later. At dinner that night I told Tom Cornell I wished I would have said, “I was bombed and shot at for eight months only to be called a traitor and a treasonous sympathizer by members of my own family, who have never served a day in uniform, let alone been in combat. I was accosted not only for my desire to follow the teachings of Jesus to love my enemies, but also for my conversion to Catholicism…and your feelings, Monsignor, are hurt because a politician is angry that you’ve been asked to be a faithful ambassador of Christ’s Church from the comfort of Roman palaces?”

Thankfully, for the cause of Christian charity, I didn’t say that to him. I did, however, finally ask the monsignor if individual Catholics serving in the military retained the moral obligation, despite legal proscriptions or permission, to question the morality of seemingly lawful military orders, to which he replied, “no.”

“People picking and choosing their wars is no way to run a military,” he said.

Michael Griffin, in what was the most respectful rebuke of a spiritual authority I have ever witnessed replied, “With all due respect, Monsignor, the mission of the Church is not to run the military.” Griff then went into a litany of the Church’s ancient and contemporary defense of conscientious objection, at each point showing how the Tradition is at odds with the monsignor’s view that a Catholic soldier’s duty is mere obedience.  Using the refrain, “the Church was not with you when…”  he recalled the martyrdom of early church conscientious objectors like St. Marcellus (whose relics now reside beneath the high altar of Sacred Heart Basilica on campus), and St. Martin of Tours, who declared, Miles Christi ego sum; pugnare mihi non licet “I am a soldier of Christ; it is not lawful for me to do violence.”

“The Church was not with you when,” Griff continued, recalling the eminent moral theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, who wrote in the 18th century that soldiers convinced a war is unjust must leave the military or refrain from hostile actions in order to receive absolution of sin. Griff continued the litany through the Second Vatican Council and the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, all echoing the apostolic injunction to follow the law of God over the laws of men. (Acts 5:29)

I silently watched the eyes of a monsignor, who essentially embodied the failure of catechesis which we were hoping to address to Vatican officials, change from cold and stern to soft, dare I even say “convicted,” by the time we exchanged parting gestures.

And the long laborious journey of this our Pilgrim Church continues. How tactically efficient it would be for a proclamation to come down from on high, commanding specific obedience. What a great use of the instruments of authority. But, what exactly would the effect of such a command be? Can self-sacrificial love be commanded? I myself have never been tested in my pacifism, never had to turn the other cheek physically. It is my aspiration, my icon of maturity. Yet peacemaking is not about demands, but gifts, not about law, but grace. We the Church are the world’s eschatological sign of the Messianic gift of peace. And as much as I could receive well a new order of peacemaking, as might befit my military instincts, only the change of hearts can make lasting a peace which policies make provisional. Dare we offer such a gift to the world, thereby endeavoring our own conversion?

Hoping and praying for such an incarnation is sometimes gratifying, mostly alienating and quite lonely. Talking of peace in the midst of war is no mere political or theological abstraction for me, it is deeply personal, calling to mind the faces and names of men I interrogated, the smell of fumes, the earth’s eruptions during the bombing campaign which razed Fallujah to the ground, the eyes of the three young shepherd boys who stared back at me through the sights of my M16, and hearing with laymen’s ears the voice of a torturer who asked me to hear his very first confession. And my wish is nothing more than a desire to fulfill the call of St. Peter: “Be prepared always to proclaim the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15). Yet still, my hope is not a change of policy, but a change of persons – conversion, most of all my own.

I went to Rome mindful of the verses and sections of the Catechism I would need to cite – how to get the job done. Then I met an old man with chaffed hands, I prayed before the bones of St. Francis in Assisi and St. Bartholomew in Trastevere, and I saw the eyes of an angered priest feel the softening touch of the Holy Spirit. I have returned home mindful that my true desire is communion, not only with my enemies, but with my own household. I desire that fraternity of Man which led a rich man to become a beggar. And I am terrified I do not have the strength or moral courage, as Cardinal Stafford wisely alluded, to follow my nascent vision of the Kingdom of God to maturity. Thy Kingdom, not my kingdom.

Francis, pray for me. Pray for us, this Church, which we are still trying to hold together with beggar’s hands. Pray for a world that knows not the poverty of love and forgets that Kingdom which was heralded not by the trumpets of power, but by bleeding hands and a personal plea for unmerited forgiveness. Pray that we will be diplomats, interlocutors of the Imago Dei, humble workers who must ensure that the only casualty of truth is falsehood. Which is to say, Francis, pray that we have the courage of love sufficient to continue the eschatological work which you yourself could not accomplish, which I certainly cannot accomplish, let alone comprehend. As a would be enemy once told you, Francis, help us to pray that God may deign to reveal to us that law and faith which is most pleasing to him.

Joshua Casteel: bound to the belief

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