Archbishop of Denver Charles J. Chaput addressed Catholic cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs on Monday, telling them the military profession is “honorable” and urging them to become virtuous leaders who serve their country best by serving God first.
The archbishop discussed war, the nature of obedience, and the need to recognize that people matter more than things.
Referring to Homer, W.B. Yeats and Robert E. Lee’s comments on war, Archbishop Chaput acknowledged that war is “tragic,” “brutish,” and a sin “against our brothers, against god and against our own human dignity. The archbishop noted that despite its “hideousness” war also demands noble traits such as skill, discipline and self-sacrifice.
He said war began with “our turning away from God in Genesis,” causing a “permanent dilemma” where Christians must pray and work earnestly for peace despite knowing that wars will take place.
“Peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace is the presence of justice,” he explained. “The irony of human affairs is that sometimes evil is so pressing and so destructive that the innocent can’t be defended except through the cost of blood and lives.”
Virtuous military leaders are “vital” in defending a free people, the archbishop said, because securing peace and conducting war are “morally loaded enterprises.”
“This is also why the military profession is not simply necessary or useful, but honorable,” he told the Air Force cadets. “It’s why your vocation as future military officers matters. It’s why your lives matter – to serve God by serving other people in the vocation He calls you to.”
Referring to his past time as a Capuchin Franciscan, Archbishop Chaput said religious orders can only achieve their mission by practicing obedience, humility, discipline and self-mastery.
“When the members lose those qualities, the community begins to unravel,” he explained. “Leadership in religious life is very explicitly a form of service, not power – and the best leaders never forget what they learned about leadership by first subjecting themselves to the leadership of others.”
Granting the “very different purposes” of the Air Force and the Capuchins, he noted that both depend on “proper obedience to authority, the habit of self-mastery and a commitment to a mission larger than the selfishness of their individual members.”
The cadets’ training, he said, teaches them maturity through being obedient and being tested.
“Too much of our country no longer believes that obedience has any role in helping people become mature and free; or that self-sacrifice is the only path to self-mastery. And I think we’re weaker because of it,” he remarked.
The archbishop then turned to the relationship between God and government.
“We serve Caesar best when we serve God first,” he asserted, explaining that serving God means deepening our Catholic faith and acting on it.
Failing to do so steals from the “moral discourse” that makes democracy work and is a form of cowardice.
Noting the vital distinction between “proper obedience to authority” and “obedience to proper authority,” he noted Christians’ “serious obligations” to obey secular authority because “all authority ultimately derives from God and is accountable to Him.”
“In the military that duty is especially urgent because if some people don’t obey, other people can die,” the archbishop added.
However, no secular authority can override Catholics’ conscience on the sanctity of innocent life, he insisted.
“Genocide is always gravely wrong. Deliberately targeting civilians in combat is always gravely wrong. Abortion, infanticide and euthanasia are always gravely wrong. There are no exceptions, because all of these evil actions intentionally attack the innocent. No authority can legitimately demand our cooperation in intrinsically evil acts -- and authority loses its legitimacy when it tries to do so.”
Proper obedience must be lived with humility and unselfishness but also “with brains and a conscience,” conscience being fully developed self-mastery and not “a feeling or an opinion or a personal preference.”
“It’s the voice of God in our hearts,” he said, revealed in Scripture, in prayer and in the teaching of the God-given Catholic faith.
“Obedience to the law is never an excuse for supporting or colluding in grave evil,” he said, saying that Catholics are not robots but moral agents whose decisions will be judged by God.
Noting that the cadets rank among the top ten percent of America’s young leaders, he said their talents have big implications for other Americans, because “we’re all going to suffer if you choose to be naïve, selfish or dumb.”
A free democracy depends on leaders and citizens who know how to think and have morally formed and critical minds, he added.
“In practice, much of our popular culture now operates like a narcotic,” Archbishop Chaput remarked. “It dumbs down our news and politics, bleaches out our beliefs, and reshapes our opinions.
“This has unhappy consequences. Real democracy requires a vigorous, intelligent, shared public commitment to the common good. It dies in a culture addicted to the pursuit of individual appetites and insecurities. And I believe it’s reasonable to ask whether the latter is what we’re becoming.”
As an example of decline, he referred to the media’s arbitrary depictions of presidential popularity polls.
“If we lose the ability to reason clearly, based on accurate information, then we lose the ability to be free. As citizens, that means we need to subject the press in our country to the same hard scrutiny and high standards of accountability to which they hold everyone else,” he continued.
“People, not things matter,” the archbishop said, noting that the “true moral monster” Mao Zedong was nonetheless right when he wrote that “it is people, not things that are decisive.”
“Our political structures as a free people are the product of great moral and intellectual sophistication,” he explained to the cadets, saying that customary American pragmatism should not obscure this fact.
He recounted how a friend was shaped by his Marine father’s death in Vietnam. This friend said that his father’s sacrifice had been valuable, saying his father “died serving people he believed in… the Vietnamese people he wanted to help.”
“And that witness of service has shaped the life of my friend and his brother ever since,” the archbishop told the cadets.
“A life lived honorably always bears fruit in the souls of the people who follow us,” Archbishop Chaput concluded. “So live honorably, serve unselfishly, think clearly and love your Catholic faith. We love our nation best when we offer it the best we have -- the witness of our convictions. We serve our country best when we serve God first.”