War, Catholicism, and quality.
On today’s episode we’ll hear from a Catholic Bishop and a former member of the British armed forces talking about how our duties as Christians, striving to walk the path to Heaven, and how does that square with the hell of war?
This is a big topic with many twists in turn so we’ll attempt to somewhat narrow our conversation today, and it will be driven by a single line of dialogue from the movie Kingdom of Heaven: “your quality will be known among your enemies before ever you meet them.”
Seeking quality in the Kingdom of Heaven
For me there is so much packed into this line from a movie called Kingdom of Heaven. A newly-minted Christian knight during the Crusades named Balian—played by Orlando Bloom—had just released a Saracen, Muslim fighter on account of his quality, when the man, Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani delivers this line.
Balian had inherited his estranged father’s nobility as Baron of Ibelin, and was shipwrecked while journeying to Jerusalem. A lone surviving horse from the wreck runs to an oasis on a desert plot of land owned by what we’re told is al-Isfahani’s master.
Balian refuses to give up the horse, and al-Isfahani’s master fights for it…and loses.
Balian spares al-Isfahani’s life, and orders him to take him to Jerusalem, and once there he releases him and gives him the horse. Al-Isfahani is stunned, saying Balian could have made him his slave, which Balian rejects—he had been near to a slave in his life and would never hold someone in bondage.
And then we hear it: “Your quality will be known among your enemies, before ever you meet them.”
Ukraine, Afghanistan and Just War
The devastation of the war in Ukraine is still captivating Europe as much of the world, compounding previous devastation seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, Yemen: the list is as long as the existence of humanity.
But really where is humanity in war?
What about mercy?
This topic is huge, no single episode of this podcast can cover it all.
I’m also not a veteran, but I’ve interviewed many in my years as a journalist, and have friends and family in the service.
You may remember talking through some of these issues in our episode with Fr. Cirilo Nacorda who was held hostage by terrorists in the Philippines at one time, and later began carrying a gun and working to help villagers defend themselves.
I’ve always struggled with this tension between being called to love our enemies, and having the armed forces needing to face our enemies, and I sought perspective from a Catholic Bishop as well as a friend and veteran.
Rebecca Clemenz: veteran and Catholic
“Born and raised in England, although I’m living in Switzerland now. I was at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in 1997 where I did my officer training and spent three years and as a troop commander,” says Rebecca Clemenz, a Catholic and a good friend of mine. Her specialization was in logistics and setting up seaports and airports in support of NATO and Allied Command Europe mobile forces, as well as the US military.
“I was actually raised in the Anglican church and became Catholic in 2002, so this is my 20 year anniversary of becoming a Catholic. And with the military connection they actually stumbled across the faith in a bar in Rome one evening,” she says. After leaving the military she didn’t know what she wanted to do, and just happened to pick Rome as a destination.
“Two years into that Rome adventure I walked into a bar in Trastevere and met some seminarians from the Pontifical North American College, some of whom were also ex-military, ex-Navy and ex-Army, and the rest is history as they say,” she continues. “And now I’m in Switzerland with my husband we have four children and I’m currently working as a teacher actually.”
A veteran’s view of war and quality
With both Rebecca and Bishop Buckon, who we’ll hear later in the episode, we sat and watched that scene from Kingdom of Heaven together to refresh the images in our minds and then jump right into a conversation.
“The the first thing that struck me about it: I was thinking about St. Thomas Aquinas when he was commenting on I believe it was on one of Aristotle’s works. He wrote that the thing that separates humans from animals, or one of the many things, is that when animals are confronted with a dangerous or new situation they instinctively react to protect or defend or to fight,” Clemenz says.
“The quality of human society and what we seek when we’re looking for justice is communication, and we we try to understand the other we try to listen to the other. And it was interesting that once this this sort of original confrontation occurred right, and he said you know ‘this is this is my horse, no you have to give it back, it belongs to me’ and this very sort of primitive or this very basic you know, this is…you see it in toddlers a lot, right? ‘This is mine, no it’s mine, we must punch each other and one of us will win,’ and really the mark of humanity is what really comes afterwards is sort of step into rationality of “no you you won’t be my slave, you won’t be my prisoner, we we’re seeking justice,” she says.
For Clemenz, the shared time in the desert , returning to Jerusalem may have fed this desire to communicate and understand the other which is really the very essence of what it means to to be a human being, and to have human nature.
Even though there’s opposition here–that we’re on two sides of a conflict–at some point you get to the level where you recognize, at least as demonstrated in the scene, that we are human, there’s mutual respect for the shared humanity in both of us, and then from a Christian perspective you know the image and likeness of God in each other, even when we’re opposed on the battlefield.
This may sometimes look like a contradiction.
“I was not in a obviously ever in a combat role in my role in the military, but one of the questions they ask you when they join is you know could you ever fire a gun at someone? And for me the answer was very clearly well I would fire back,” Clemenz says. “I know Pope Francis has recently sort of re-understood the Church’s teaching on these concepts of things like Just War, and things like that, and defense is really the only room he leaves for any sort of concept of Just War; was the ability to defend oneself. Obviously the elephant in the room for all of us at the moment of course is the war in the Ukraine and the conversations I have with people, no one can understand how in 2022 we have a situation that we find ourselves in right now.”
“Going on the back of the wars we’ve had in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and all those other things and trying to learn lessons from things that went wrong in that time, but as you say it’s this experience of the meeting of people,” she continues. “You know as well–I’ve lived in a couple of different countries, you have as well and so very much of what we what we fear and what we dislike of other people is simply what we don’t know about them, and when you speak to people you find that the things you thought were differences and the things you thought were problems, and the things you thought were insurmountable problems, and things we should probably fight about, when you sit down and talk to someone you actually find that we have far much more in common than we could have imagined. And as you say this this common humanity this this viewing the world is as a created child of God and with our common goal of seeking God as our ultimate good together.”
Part of the contradiction, at least for me, is juxtaposing Realpolitik and what we know from modern society, and diplomacy, and nation-states, to our responsibility as Christians.
We’re called to love our enemies, and to love someone is to will the good of the other: how do we will the good of someone who is a declared enemy?
How does that square from from the military perspective especially when you’re trying to balance your duty, with also your duty to God and your faith?
“It’s not an easy one to answer. Really it’s sort of the $64,000 question, and I don’t have the answer,” Clemenz says. “I think for me it was, it was always a case of you know, what is it that we’re fighting for? And in the military as the individual soldiers they don’t have that freedom of conscience really anymore, when you sign up, you, you join up, you, you have a chain of command, you’re following the orders of the people above you. But I think the, for me, the only thing that I think you can do is in those one-on-one situations where as a soldier involved in a civilian population and in those moments you can’t you can’t have that connection perhaps with the enemy combatant as directly, but in the situations where you’re confronted with civilians or prisoners of war and in those sort of situations, I think that’s really the moment where you can build your own…the famous stories from the Second World War, the German and English soldiers playing cricket, and you know celebrating Christmas Day together, and things like that, and it’s I think it’s those moments where on an individual level you can say well when I had the freedom as a soldier to make a choice in that moment, I chose the good and I chose the good for my enemy even though the next day we picked up rifles and we’re shooting each other again, because those are my orders and that’s what I promised to do when I signed up.”
Mercy and karma
Without spoiling the movie, Balian’s act of mercy comes back, and and it it pays off well for Balian, the main Christian knight, played by Orlando Bloom.
It kindled in me a memory of a passage in Sirach: ‘the kindness people have done crosses their paths later on. Should they stumble they will find support.’
“I study with Dominicans so intention is everything right? Why am I doing this good deed? Am I doing it so that at some unknown point in the future someone will be nice to me back?” Clemenz asks. “You know it’s we’ve all been there sat in the traffic jam, someone’s trying to come in from the side and you think, well I’ll let this person in because maybe next time I’ll be the guy sitting trying to join the queue, and someone would be nice to me.”
“But I think the Catholic view of it and ultimately what we’re aiming for is doing the good for the sake of the good itself, and not in the hope of some future reward. We seek the good because it’s what our soul desires, what our intellect desires, what our will desires, and we seek to do the good for its own sake, not for the sake of a future reward or to receive it back in some way.”
If you were to take a let’s say a Buddhist view, for example, that it’s all about karma: you know what goes around comes around, that stands different than the Catholic perspective that good is good: there is truth, there is right action, and really the responsibility is to do that whether or not there is a direct reward so to say for yourself.
“When you think of the life of Christ right he went around healing the sick, I mean he’s doing miracles and wonderful things and he certainly didn’t have that…the karma wasn’t there in his life right?” Clemenz adds. “In the end he’s crucified. I think that’s what the the Christian ideal is is we do good anyway and we do good anyway because it’s the right thing to do and it’s it’s the ultimate you know God is good and we we ultimately seek to be with Him.”
Honor in modern times?
Being noble, being honorable: we often hear these words used when we think about chivalry, and medieval times.
But how does that extend to the modern military perspective? You have in the scene the call fight me fairly, I’m nobility as well–does that exist anymore or has warfare and the role of militaries change so much that it’s not necessarily a one-to-one uh as often perhaps?
“I think what has fundamentally changed in the concept of modern warfare is who the enemy is, and previously when you think I mean even just a hundred years ago England and the US were fighting Germany, and the enemy was very clear and now the enemy is an ideology that’s hiding within a population,” Clemenz says. “It’s much much harder to target that. And so I mean we’ve seen ourselves and I mean I think the thing with Russia has maybe shifted the paradigm a little bit again, but I think in the situations we’ve seen in the Middle East in recent conflicts the the enemy hasn’t been clear, we we don’t know exactly, we’re fighting an ideology rather than a than a political party or a a specific evil or an evil nation as we’ve previously understood it in that way, and I think that the nature of warfare certainly–the way soldiers are trained for warfare has changed dramatically over the last um two decades, even in that short period of time, in the last period of time because we’re not fighting the same enemy.”
“It’s not rows of trenches, rows of tanks, rows of artillery anymore, you’re fighting an insurgent, a terrorist, a single individual that’s seeking to destroy something rather than an army or a specific power.”
Is there The Truth or just ‘my truth?’
In thinking about the agency that we have in a moment and that’s really where our responsibility comes in as Catholics to try to make the best decision we can, and it begs the question how that translates into a military context.
But also how that translates to everyday life, and opportunities to show mercy to others. This may extend the use of enemy very broadly but people who come across our paths who are maybe challenging on our spiritual journey?
“Well and one of the things I gave up Facebook a couple of years ago but one of the things I saw frequently going around Facebook and it made me so furious and was one of these memes and it has a six and someone’s saying it’s a six and then someone’s standing the other end saying it’s a nine and and then you know the thing goes ‘well they’re both right,'” Clemenz says, pointing to another common demonstration of perspective from an Indian folktale, that blind men are holding different parts of an elephant, but think they are individual items instead.
“I think it’s really just intellectual laziness. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. When you see something that is contradictory, when you see something that I say is a six, you say it’s a nine, like in all likelihood we’re both wrong, and I think having the humility to take a step back, look at the bigger picture,” she says. “Maybe we need to take a step back and look for other points to orientate ourselves. And I truly think there’s this quest for the truth, I’m not to get off topic but I feel like very often today we sort of say well if this is my truth, and this is your truth, and both of these things have equal value, and both of these things are also objectively true, even though they’re contradictory and I think in today’s society we have more than enough opportunities every day of meeting people that that say strange things, or or have what seem to be very opposing views of what the truth actually is. I think for modern Catholics and modern Christians especially is having that courage to engage in the dialogue so when you say that, what do you mean, how do you say that, and not because I’m right, I’m also learning from you…we see, we’re seeking The Truth written with capital letters together, and i think um we have to avoid this trap of intellectual laziness, of saying well you know if it’s true for you and it’s true for me and something else is true for him and it’s all true, isn’t that lovely, when in fact we know that’s not the case. There is The Truth, we believe in the existence of an ultimate truth and of God and and as Christ you know you can know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
There are sometimes assumptions about Catholicism that we as Catholics are just following rules and we’re not independent thinkers, even though there is a tradition of really trying to to reason our way to faith as well, and some people think reason and faith are opposed but really questioning that is part of our spiritual journey and you know that applies whether we’re on a battlefield, a literal battlefield, or in a spiritual battlefield every single day.
“What is it St. Francis said ‘preach the Gospel, if necessary use words’ right?” Clemenz says. “My two youngest are preparing for the First Communion and in the little book they’re studying from it says you know people should look at you and say wow that’s the First Communion Child, there should be your joy at receiving this sacrament, your joy at this union with Christ should be something that’s visible to people and ‘spürbar’ in German right, and something that people can–something concrete, and something that they can touch and feel, and I think that’s for all of us, as well.”
“A very dear friend of mine many years ago said to me in Rome: my only hope as a Catholic is that when people go home in the evening and they say well you know Catholics they this, this, this, they say well they can think about me and think well hang on, she isn’t like that, maybe there’s something there I need to find out something more about, and that was really something that I took to heart and you know I think that’s such good advice and it’s not that we have to be out there sort of waving around Rosary beads and quoting the Bible at people, but the the way we live should be the Gospel message in and of itself.”
But if you want to wave around rosary beads you can do that too!
Bishop Neal Buckon
This discussion of war and faith, of mercy, honor, duty…as I mentioned at the start there are many elements to consider, and we can only touch on some.
But often the issue comes down to life and death—in the literal sense, of a physical threat to life and the obligation to preserve and defend your own or that of innocents.
But also your eternal life in the Catholic view—how do we function and behave in accordance to Christ’s teaching.
Bishop Neal Buckon is from the Archdiocese of the Military Services, USA. And in thinking about that Kingdom of Heaven scene that is spurring on this episode today, he tells us to remember that was a life and death situation right from the start.
“The desert that can be most inhospitable and uh well he may have known if I give up my horse, I give up my life here, so he may have been fighting for his life and that’s one of the things that we believe is that we have a right to defend ourselves, and defend our lives. Again unfortunate loss of life that we saw displayed in the movie, but I think that the knight had the had the the obligation to preserve his own life as best he can.”
The idea of quality being known among enemies inspired in the Bishop a thought to the modern context of values prized by the US Armed Forces for example, including loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, integrity, courage, commitment—highlighted depending on the branch, but you get the idea.
“So these are the values that each one of the services try to inculcate in all of the people that join these services so right from the initial entry they’re at basic, basic training, everybody gets introduced to these values, so if they don’t already have these values the military wants to try to instill these values into them so that yes everybody would know when they see a soldier when they see a sailor these are the values,” the Bishop continued. “It should define who this individual is, so I think that even the enemies would know okay well this is what we can expect from uh an American soldier.”
Bishop Buckon also reminded me of the importance of the rules of engagement for service members as a demonstration of discipline and a set of principles that guide interactions even in heated situations.
“I would like to think that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and now we also have the the Space Force–the Guardians–not the new Cleveland team, but the new military service that you know these uh folks will exercise their duties with respect to the law of land warfare and the rules of engagement so you know they have you know a framework in which they’re supposed to be um following orders and conducting operations in our national security and so they’re not supposed to be operating as lone rangers out there you know they’re this must be team players following the laws of land warfare and the rules of engagement.”
That prompted me to wonder about if if we’re to follow a code both service members are following a code but also as Catholics, as Christians we have to follow a code as well: how does that interact maybe with people who oppose us, who don’t share those codes, right, and would maybe take advantage of knowing the the codes that we live by?
How do we weigh that in the Christian sense of knowing someone may take advantage of the fact that we follow rules and we respect life and truth uh above all things?
“You know that’s the thing we don’t uh want to surrender the moral high ground,” the Bishop says. “It’s important to be true to oneself and to one’s calling as you go about this business and yeah, so so that’s uh something that I think we as Americans, as an American people, want to do is make sure that we have elected officials who oversee military military operations uh that are wanting to hold this moral high ground. So yes the the military is held accountable to the Congress and the Senate, the Commander-in-Chief is the President of the United States, so it’s a key and essential for our country to have people who are moral.”
And there are a number of Catholics in these roles, which the Bishop seemed proud to say.
War is hell
But ultimately war is difficult and a test on us individually and collectively. And to love our enemies willing their good it’s just a rough spot.
“It’s you know it’s just terrible, that’s what they say war is hell,” the Bishop says. “It’s a terrible scenario for anybody to be placed into. It should always be the last resort. I think it’s very very difficult too so like Afghanistan and and Iraq the enemy…they were not wearing a a uniform, they were they were dressed as locals in the neighborhood, so they’re very difficult to identify. So uh not not an easy task or an easy situation.”
And of course now Europe is still reeling with the effects of the war in Ukraine. Bishop Buckon pointed to the aggression shown against Ukraine by Russia as a clear provocation, which provides space for Ukraine to defend itself under Just War theory. But not all wars are created equal.
“When we look at what’s going on in the Ukraine right now we could see that we had a sovereign nation that was uh attacked, invaded by another country. I mean the people that are fighting in the Ukraine um they’re fighting for their lives, their families, their neighborhoods, so I think when seeing Augustine penned his Just War criteria he had this kind of scenario in mind. You know unfortunately when we went into Iraq in 2003, the Holy Father Pope John Paul II now Saint John Paul he had said well we have not yet reached last resort, so we have the Holy Father at that point in time saying that in the application of the Just War criteria, the criteria had not been met, which it does present us with a moral dilemma. I know there were service members who were struggling with their conscience with respect to feeling okay well no I raised my hand, I put on the uniform. I swore that I would obey the orders of those appointed over me, but now the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church is sending me a different message here, yeah so there is that tension that we we spoke about.”
“You know by and large most of the people that I work with they love God, they love their country, they love their little chapel, they want to do the right thing always and everywhere, but unfortunately not everybody thinks like we do and I think that’s what we’re seeing in a situation like the invasion of the Ukraine here,” he says.
Bishop Buckon says it’s important to have people with values and clear thinking in command roles because acting with emotion can lead to escalation of conflicts, as he saw in his many years traveling to troops in conflict zones.
But those values also play out in the non combat missions—the humanitarian missions, and the goodwill missions that demonstrate the quality of our armed forces and society by our actions.
“Let’s take a look at the Afghan refugee– so the first Sunday of Advent I visited Holloman air force base in New Mexico and there on the base they have Douglas Village, and in Douglas Village they have 3,000 guests. The guests are Afghan refugee, um more than half of them are children, so they came as families, they they left Afghanistan because they they felt like well um there’s no future for us here maybe maybe the the Taliban even has us in their their crosshairs, in other words they might be wanting to target our family here so a little family kind of became a family of refugees to be resettled in the United States, so they’ll spend six months there in the refugee camp,” the Bishop continues.
“The mayor of the camp is an Air Force major and Air force personnel are running the camp, and it’s a tent city, and there are several different agencies that work there one of them is migration refugee services from the USCCB so they have the morale welfare recreation part, and it was nice to see their their tent and their participation in the effort.”
The camp has a mosque, the Bishop says, and the the call to prayer could be heard. Kids were doing what you would expect: being kids.
“They were running around and laughing and playing games, some were holding hands with the airmen, and I was thinking you know for an eight-year-old when they come here to the United States they go into one of these villages, they’re probably thinking oh they’re here too. In other words they saw them over there in their country and now they come here to the United States they go to the village and oh there’s a a uniformed American service member and so it was just uh endearing to see children holding the hands of uniformed airmen and walking walking around in these playgrounds.”
We can only control ourselves, our actions, and our interactions. How we will be judged, is by how we act, and who we are now.
And it should be done with humility. There’s a difference in earning one’s reputation through action, or by being one’s own cheerleader.
If we were to be judged on our lives up to this point, can we stand confidently before our Judge and claim we are excellent? In my opinion, everyone’s truthful answer should be “No, but I tried my best.”
And that effort to be a good Christian, a good Catholic, should be the best we can give at any one moment…on a literal battlefield, or a spiritual one we visit every day.
“…your quality will be known among your enemies before ever you meet them…”