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Martin Sheen undeserving of award

Charles Rice | Wednesday, March 12, 2008

“The Laetare Medal has been worn only by men and women whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity.” Citation for Laetare Medal given to General William Rosecrans in 1896.

The 2008 recipient, Martin Sheen, a self-described “peace and justice activist,” has been arrested at least 65 times for nonviolent obstructions and trespasses at military installations and other sites.

Mr. Sheen’s many pronouncements on public issues merit discussion, including his views on homosexual rights, his “doubts” about the 9/11 Commission Report, and his personal but guarded opposition to abortion. Regrettably, his commendable opposition to the intentional killing of the innocent has never led him to appear at an abortuary to offer the sidewalk counseling which can immediately save innocent lives; such would be politically incorrect.

This column, however, is concerned with Sheen’s attitude toward military service. In a 2003 interview with David Kupfer, Sheen denied the accusation “of not supporting the military.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Sheen said. “The leaders… make the decisions…. I support the soldiers as human beings.”

One manifesto, however, that Sheen signed on January 5, 2005, described “military training” as “schooling body and spirit in the art of killing… It is the perpetuation of war spirit. It hinders the development of the desire for peace.” The manifesto called for “non-violent resistance to the military system,” including not only conscientious objection “by conscripts and professional soldiers, in war and peace time,” but also “Civil Disobedience, War Tax Resistance, Non-Cooperation with military research, military production and arms trade.” The Laetare award to Sheen could generate confusion as to whether military service is consistent with “the ideals of the Church.” Let’s try to set the record straight.

“All those who enter the military service in loyalty to their country,” the Second Vatican Council said, “should look upon themselves as the custodians of the security and freedom of their fellow countrymen; and when they carry out their duty properly, they are contributing to the maintenance of peace.” Gaudium et Spes, no. 79.

The Catechism affirms that “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.” No. 2308. Such defense must satisfy “just war” analysis. The requirements for jus ad bellum, justice in going to war, are proper authority, just cause and right intention. The Catechism lists further details: “[T]he damage inflicted by the aggressor… must be lasting, grave and certain;” war must be a last resort, with “all other means impractical or ineffective;” “there must be serious prospects of success;” and “the use of arms must not produce evils… graver than the evil to be eliminated.” “The evaluation of these conditions,” however, “belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” No. 2309. Citizens are obliged, in effect, to give a benefit of the doubt to the decisions of those in lawful authority.

Jus in bello, justice in fighting a war, requires proportionality and discrimination (non-combatant immunity from intentional attack). What Sheen, and other politicized critics, appear to overlook is the fact that the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the very restrictive Rules of Engagement and other binding military policies effectively protect noncombatants and otherwise conform to the requirements of jus in bello. Some military personnel violate the law but their record is far better than that of corporate executives. And the armed services are diligent, perhaps to the point of excess, in prosecuting putative offenses.

The universal pacifist refuses to take part in any and all wars. “Those who renounce violence… and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear… witness to the… risks of recourse to violence.” No. 2306. However, a universal pacifism which denies the right of the state ever to use force in defense, is inconsistent with the teaching of the Church.

The selective pacifist refuses to take part in a particular war he regards as unjust. Citizens are obliged to support a just war. “Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.” No. 2310. The law of the United States allows exemptions from military service only for universal, and not for selective, pacifists. The Catechism urges, but does not require, exemption for all conscientious objectors. No. 2311. It is difficult, however, to see how an exemption for selective objectors could be administered without inviting fraudulent evasion.

Granting the sincerity of universal pacifists, their claim to moral superiority is flawed. One can well “bear witness to evangelical charity” by renouncing force in defending himself. The universal pacifist, who denies that force can ever be used in defense of the common good, would refuse to defend not only himself but others. He would deny to his fellow citizens their right to have the state provide what the Catechism calls “legitimate defense by military force.” No. 2309.

Selective pacifism, on the other hand, is required by the teaching of the Church. We should all be selective pacifists, insisting, with prudence, that any war – or any other act of state – is subject to the higher standard of the natural law and the law of God. A strong presumption of validity attaches to the decisions and acts of those entrusted with the care of the common good. But that presumption is not conclusive.

All wars are debatable, including the Iraq War. Hostility to President Bush should not be allowed to distort the principles involved. In full disclosure, permit me to note my view that, although he has competitors for the honor, George W. Bush, for various reasons foreign and domestic, may be the worst president ever. But, subject to the legitimate authority of Congress, the president has the duty to defend the nation and his decisions are entitled to a strong benefit of the doubt. To participate in that defense is an honorable calling. Those who do so deserve appreciation and respect. They ought not to be subjected to disparagement no matter how politically correct that disparagement might be. The Laetare award to Mr. Sheen implicitly and unjustifiably denigrates those who serve in the armed forces, including alumni and present students of Notre Dame.

Professor Emeritus Rice is on the law school faculty. He may be reached at (574) 633-4415 or rice.1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.