Ignorance of the law is no excuse in the United States’ legal system. But in Catholic moral theology, a law that is unknown is not binding. This makes total sense because a person cannot choose for or against what he or she does not know. It is also a principle of Catholic moral theology that a law that a person is uncertain concerning its existence, content or scope is not binding. Generally speaking, this is summarized by the reflex principle that “doubt favors the possessor of the doubt,” which is quite in accord with the evangelical gift of freedom. Grave sin, mortal sin, can only be committed when, with full knowledge and full consent of the will, a gravely evil act is engaged in.
Now, since Jesus’ unambiguous rejection of violence and enmity is, as the Biblical scholar Rev. John L. McKenzie has phrased it, “the clearest of teachings”, on what moral basis do the leaders of the Constantinian Churches not teach it or only perfunctorily teach it? I would like to submit that in their minds the basis for their not teaching, indeed not proclaiming, the Nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and His Way of Nonviolent Love of friends an enemies, is an understanding of compassion and a way of saving souls that is in line with protecting and enhancing the power and property rights of the institutional Church in a society.
If Constantinian Church leaders permitted, indeed insisted, that the Nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and His Way of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies be properly and thoroughly taught at all levels of Christian education from pre-school to PhD, then Christians in their spiritual care would have that explicit awareness of Gospel truth clearly in their minds and would by moral necessity have to apply it in conscience to war, to the death penalty, to abortion and to all other forms of state violence, in discerning whether it is morally permissible to enter into such activities. Needless to say, there would be no chance that engaging in the mass killing of war with its concomitant intense spirit of enmity would be found acceptable by a Christian conscience formed spiritually and cognitively in Jesus’ Way of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies.
However, a state can no more exist without violence than a brothel can exist without sex. But, violence like sex needs people to actually do it. Also needless to say, such conscience formation as presented above, followed by behavioral rejection of violence and enmity would be anathema to the state. The young bodies the state would have had available to it, to actually pull the trigger, press the button, stick the bayonet into the throat of the enemy, would be diminished severely. A state with a significant Christian population finding itself in such a situation would more than likely turn on the large Christian Churches within it, which thoroughly taught Jesus’ Nonviolent Love of friends an enemies, like a roaring lion and devour whatever and whoever had to be devoured until those Churches, their leaders and their people returned to their culturally “right minds” and gave their bodily, moral and spiritual support to the state’s military, its programs and its operations.
To save their fellow Christians from this ordeal and the suffering it portents, Church leaders in their compassion simply bracket-out of their proclamation and teaching of the Gospel the fact that Jesus is Nonviolent and teaches a Way of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies as the Way of God unto Eternal Life. By doing this they kill two birds with one rock. They first of all save their people from the state’s wrath, which would be poured down on them if they refused to give their support and their bodies to the state’s military activities. They also would be saving the souls of their people. How? Sin is freely choosing evil with full knowledge that it is evil. Since people cannot choose in conscience for or against what they do not know, e.g., the Nonviolent Jesus and His Way of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies, there can here be no question of such Christians gravely sinning in killing other human beings on orders from the politicians of the state. The Nonviolent Jesus and His Way of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies would be a non-thought for these Christians who have been systematically kept in the dark on this truth of the Gospels.
The same pedagogy of “compassion” and salvation is in operation in relationship to the so-called just war theory. Ninety-nine percent of the Catholics who espouse the Catholic Just War Theory do not know the content of the Catholic Just War Theory and the principles of Catholic moral theology to which it is subject. Why don’t they know it? The answer is, that just as the Nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and His Way of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies is either systematically not taught or is so superficially taught that its existence, content and scope are nebulous in the extreme, so also is this the case with Catholic Just War Theory. And as noted before, moral laws that a human being does not know, does not know the content of and/or does not know the scope of, are moral laws that he or she is not bound by, that he or she cannot sin against.
Therefore by bishops, priests, ministers, pastors and even military chaplains keeping silent on the Nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and His Way of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies, as well as on the severe and strict standards of Catholic Just War Theory, Catholics and most other Christians can go to any war conjured up by the powers-that-be without any qualms of conscience. They may then engage in the evil of murder and be killed themselves, but they will go to heaven because they did not know they were engaged in murder. Why? Because no one responsible for their spiritual care and awareness ever properly told them what standards they had to live by if they were not to engage in the intrinsically grave evil of murder. It is the Church’s application of the morality presented to the world by a U.S. Army Major at Ben Tre, Vietnam, on February 7, 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the village to save it.”
How long, O Lord, how long?