Over the next three months, I’ll be publishing weekly installments of a memoir. “The Church, the Draft Board, and Me” recounts my conflicts with the Catholic Church, whose ethics were called into question by the war in Vietnam, and the U.S. Selective Service System, which refused to honor my conscientious objection to participation in war. In telling that story, it sketches my evolution, despite encounters with predatory priests and a vindictive draft board, from youthful candidate for the Catholic priesthood to adult a-theistic Quaker who still asserts that “God is love.”
I am grateful to Friends Bess Keller, whose patient reading and extensive editorial suggestions were most helpful; Chuck Fager, who encouraged me beyond the first two, shorter, drafts with “Keep writing,” and who suggested some changes in the final draft; and Gary Gillespie, whose succinct comment on the first draft — “You left out the drugs” — helped me realize that a brief piece couldn’t do justice to the story.
Section titles, which will be hyperlinked below as the sections are posted on line, are as follows.
Introduction: “Make love, not war” (this document, below)
The Church, Part 1: The Call
The Church, Part 2: “The Habit Covers a Multitude of Sins”
Sidebar 1: The Absurdity of Catholic Morality
The Church, Part 3: Seminary Again
The Church, Part 4: Taking Flight
The Draft, Part 1: The Question of War
The Draft, Part 2: Conscience and Conflict
Sidebar 2: Letter to Father Robert
The Draft, Part 3: The Lottery
The Draft, Part 4: Decision
Postscript: Becoming an A-theistic Quaker
The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (1 of 12)
Introduction: “Make love, not war”
In 1968, the war in Vietnam was raising acute questions of conscience for me. As a second-year undergrad, I was exempt from conscription, but I knew that I could eventually be drafted and ordered to kill. My friends at our fledgling community college were also struggling with the morality of war. Disturbed by what we were learning about the war through the media, we wanted to explore different perspectives on the ethics of violence.
An opportunity for that arose when the literary magazine staff, on which I served, was asked to suggest a speaker for the college. Unanimously, we chose the controversial poet and “peacenik” Allen Ginsberg. We were happily surprised when our suggestion was accepted, and we were delighted when Ginsberg agreed to come.
Early in March of 1969, a weathered Volkswagen bus brought Ginsberg and his lover, Peter Orlovsky, to our little campus. Ginsberg would spend many hours speaking with students, formally and informally, about freedom, tolerance, and peace. During a luncheon with the magazine staff, he encouraged us to write honestly and fearlessly. I was impressed not only by his words but also by the consistency of his demeanor with those words. Throughout the visit, his compassion and courage were evident — as was his seemingly casual use of profanity. One interaction between Ginsberg and a student has remained especially clear in my memory.
Many students at the college were vocal critics of the war, but there was one young man, already signed up for post-college service in the Marine Corps, who spoke forcefully in favor of it. Some of us called him “Gung-ho Eric.” Ginsberg was conversing with a group of us when Eric confronted him. “You say we shouldn’t be fighting the Communists in Vietnam?” he asked, the challenge obvious in his posture and tone. Ginsberg answered calmly: “That’s right.” “Well then,” replied Eric, “what do you suggest we do with all those Vietcong over there?” With a seemingly dismissive shrug, Ginsberg said, “Fuck ’em.” Eric’s eyes narrowed. “Mister,” he said, “you have a foul mouth.” “Which is foul,” Ginsberg asked softly, “to fuck ’em or to kill ’em?” Eric walked away, shaking his head.
“Which is foul”? The Roman Catholic Church had shaped my conscience to believe that nonmarital sex was evil, war was righteous,1 and morality was about personal salvation from hell. But when Ginsberg stated the issue starkly and provocatively, I had already been re-evaluating those beliefs for some time. In light of the question of war, Catholic morality was revealed as a house divided. The same Church that blessed war also taught that love was not only God’s greatest commandment but also his greatest gift, the infusion of his own nature into the soul. My heart and mind balked at the prospect of injuring or killing others whom the government had declared enemies: how could that be squared with “love your enemies; do good to those who hate you”?
The re-evaluation was soul-wrenching. To question the Church’s infallibility was to open a door through which moral and social anarchy might enter. For the Church taught that, while it alone had the power to define doctrine and morality, worldly authorities must be obeyed unless the Church determined they were violating divine law. For a Catholic, political and social power rested on the Church’s God-given authority. If that authority were to fall, then all other authority could fall with it. The legitimacy of all “the powers that be” was under impeachment.
To find myself in conscientious disagreement on the morality of war would break my relationships with church, state, culture, and family. But the critical process, once begun, could not be stopped. Simply to have acknowledged the possibility of dissent was already to have permitted the deconstruction of my Catholic identity. The war made the crucible inevitable.
. “Catholic philosophy … concedes to the State the full natural right of war, whether defensive, as in case of another’s attack in force upon it; offensive (more properly, coercive), where it finds it necessary to take the initiative in the application of force; or punitive, in the infliction of punishment for evil done against itself or, in some determined cases, against others. International law views the punitive right of war with suspicion; but, though it is open to wide abuse, its original existence under the natural law cannot well be disputed.” — The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913): this was the officially-approved reference compendium known by my teachers. The first version of a post-world-war, post-Vatican II replacement work, The New Catholic Encyclopedia, was not published until 1967. (For the entire article, see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15546c.htm.)