If we are heading towards a global war, it’s time for our faith leaders to take a stand for peace

A couple of years ago if you had the temerity to suggest that Donald Trump might once again become the US president, people would have said you’d lost your marbles. The very ex-president was a spent and darkly tainted political phenomenon confronting unprecedented litigation and the systematic dismemberment of both his political and personal reputation.

Sadly, those who opposed him failed to appreciate one of the oldest and most proven of political truths, that the surest way to remove a vexatious opponent is not to annihilate them but rather absorb them into the political system you are seeking to protect. If the American establishment had commiserated with Donald Trump and handed him some state governorship in 2021 he’d almost certainly have disappeared into the political wilderness. Instead, the determination to humiliate and obliterate him has created a dangerous and powerful martyr in the eyes of a very large number of Americans.

After last night’s trouncing of his only remaining rival in the New Hampshire primary, Mr Trump now has an unassailable 12-point lead over former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and – with 90% of the votes in – nothing is likely to stop him becoming the Republican party’s presidential candidate. He has only then to defeat a bumbling and unpopular Joe Biden to once again have his hands on the White House, and the codes to a potential global apocalypse.

Should we be worried? I’d like to think not. Whatever you views on his personality and his political style, Trump has from the outset proven himself to be not only a lot smarter than most other US politicians (which isn’t saying a lot!), but he’s also very attuned to the underlying mood of the American public (as opposed to what the American public might be saying openly). He has also learned a great deal from the past six years, and will be returning to the world stage with a far more focussed and refined agenda.

Whether that delivers the world a more mature and cautious global leader, or a desperately dangerous despot is hard to tell, and unfortunately we’ll only find out when it’s much too late to do anything about it. To make matters worse, the world is increasingly edging towards the precipice of all-out war, a situation where we’ll require an entirely different calibre of politician from the self-rewarding middle-management bureaucrats we’ve become used to.

For those old enough to remember, there’s a chilling 1939 feel to the world just now and when you get Nato chiefs telling us all to prepare for conscription, you know just how bad things have become. Admiral Rob Bauer, the chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, just this week told reporters after a meeting of NATO chiefs in Brussels that both civilians and governments need to prepare for cataclysmic conflicts and the chilling prospect of being drafted.

“We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we [NATO forces] have the plans, that’s why we are preparing for a conflict with Russia,” said Bauer.

And just this afternoon, the head of the British Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, sounded a further alarm when he confirmed that Britain will need to “mobilise the nation” if war breaks out with Russia, not least because decades of government cutbacks to defence budgets have left us with precious few soldiers (102,000 in 2006, 74,000 today and falling fast), an embarrassingly depleted Navy and little in the way of meaningful armaments.

Despite the gathering storm clouds of war, UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps today refused to say when a Tory pledge to raise defence spending (which is currently well below its target of 2.5% of GDP) will be met – perhaps we’ve just been too focussed on selling our weapons of destruction and have never really felt the need to arm ourselves with all the military paraphernalia we’re so fond of advertising?

In fairness, General Sanders doesn’t actually believe that war is inevitable, rather “This is our 1937 moment. We are not at war, but must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion.”

So one has to hope and pray that the government isn’t actually coming tomorrow for our children, rather that this is our very sensible and knowledgeable military leaders telling us that if we don’t sort out or defences urgently and start presenting a creditable threat to invaders, we’re very likely going to find that some despot will fancy his chances.

The comparison to Britain in the late 1930s is well made, when the woeful state of the UK’s armed forces and the ongoing humiliation of trying to appease the unappeasable gave Hitler the impression we wouldn’t present much of an obstacle to his maniacal ambitions. Clearly, Valdimir Putin made much the same calculation when the invaded Ukraine, and other rogue states now seem to be testing British timidity in a fashion that can only escalate into uncontrollable warfare if the fires aren’t extinguished. These nations are re-arming rapidly whilst the West is still pushing down an increasing futile path of risk-aversion.

If such dreadfully uncertain times pose challenges for our legislators and defence experts, they present a similarly difficult proposition for our Church leaders and theologians. It has of course always been the Catholic Church’s position that war is a ‘failure’ and a ‘defeat’ of human beings to settle their differences and live together peacefully as God intended. So from this fundamental perspective we will always oppose warfare as a solution to human problems, and plead for peace to intervene when wars do break out.

However, it looks like the Catholic Church could be about to face its own “1939” moment, when it may be asked far more pointedly whether or not it endorses military solutions and – God forbid – the surrender of our children to the machinery of war. If this sounds far-fetched, it’s little more than British Prime Minister Tony Blair did on 22nd February 2003, when he ran off to Rome to try and persuade Pope John Paul II to support his intention to invade Iraq. That was a Saturday; we have no idea what each said to each other except that the pope’s adviser called the meeting “cordial”, but during his Sunday address the next day Pope John Paul II shouted “no to war” three times, and then thumped the lectern so hard the thunderclap would have been heard in Downing Street. Blair went ahead regardless.

As we know only too well, the UK has a long tradition of ‘calling in’ faith leaders when war is on the horizon – under the banner of ‘Just War’ theory we are asked to bless soldiers and battleships, aeroplanes and tanks and to give out tacit or even formal endorsement to the coming carnage. The relationship between conflict, killing and the ministry of Christ is an incredibly complex one – as any military chaplain will tell you, if men and women are dying, Christ needs to be there, but it’s not the role of the Catholic (or indeed any) Church to honour the institution, or to glorify warfare. Whilst we should thank God that some few brave individual are prepared to stand on the wall at night so that we can sleep soundly in our beds, we should also lament deeply that they have to be there in the first place.

If over the coming few decades our legislators and world leaders really can’t settle their differences, then warfare it may be; if so, Catholic Church leaders will need to decide where they stand. But just as military leaders have this week sent out an early signal that they don’t have the resources to deal with such an eventuality, it might be useful if faith leaders signalled sooner rather than later that they won’t be supporting military madness and human annihilation.

Back in 1939 there were plenty of Catholic voices cautioning against war, but equally stating unambiguously that conflict would not be endorsed. One of the most influential was Irish-born John Timothy McNicholas. Born in Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo, McNicholas joined the Dominicans, travelled to America and went on to become Archbishop of Cincinnati.

As early as 1938 he was raging against the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany which he said “deserves the condemnation of all right-thinking men” and in the same year he issued a controversial Pastoral Letter on the theme of peace in which he said:

“Governments that have no fixed standards of morality, and consequently no moral sense, can scarcely settle the question of war on moral grounds for Christians … who see and know the injustice of practically all wars in our modern pagan world. There is the very practical question for informed Christians who acknowledge the supreme dominion of God … Will such Christians in our country form a mighty league of conscientious non-combatants?”

McNicholas’ Letter sent unwelcome shockwaves across the United States, seriously rattling congressmen, warmongers and the wider public, and his plea gave rise to a whole movement of American Christian contentious objection that continues to this day.

The essence of such objections trace their authority back to Aquinas, not so much on the objection to warfare per se but to the notion that conscription conflicts with an individual’s freedom to follow the natural law as revealed by God. More direct objections to fighting are found in the lives of saint such as Francis of Assisi – and in St Martin of Tours who as a youth was forced in to the Roman army, but is said to have petitioned the Roman Emperor Sulpicius Severus to be released on the grounds that: “I am Christ’s soldier: I am not allowed to fight.” In response to accusations of cowardice he offered to stand in the front line armed only with the Sign of the Cross.

Also often cited in Christian arguments against war is a less well-known saint – Telemachus – a 3rd century monk who stepped in between to gladiators fighting in a Roman amphitheatre, and was stoned to death by the crowd. The Christian Emperor Honorius was said to have been so impressed by Telemachus’ martyrdom that he banned gladiatorial contests.

In more recent times our Christian leaders have walked a broad and largely uneventful path between militarism and pacifism, but the arguments are narrowing rapidly to a point where generalised calls for peace and dialogue will no longer suffice. If the tanks end up on our lawn and the government asks for our children a far more robust response will be needed. Active pacifism and contentious objection have long been denigrated as options of the soft Left, but letting our legislators know now in no uncertain terms that our Churches and their members will not support all-out military conflict and will not endorse any form of conscription is a position better stated sooner rather than later.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian.