St. Marcellus the Centurion

(Feast October 30)

Back in the ancient Roman Empire, some Christians served in the imperial armies, but others refused to serve, believing that they could not do so in Christian conscience. If being a soldier meant performing pagan rites, as it sometimes did, obviously no Christian could do so. But the additional question was now and then raised: Is armed service in itself forbidden by the Christian law of love?

St. Marcellus the Centurion, after some years of military service, concluded that it was forbidden … at least according to his mature conscience.

One day in 298 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, Marcellus’ unit in northern Africa was celebrating this pagan emperor’s birthday with a party. Suddenly Marcellus, perhaps as the result of long pondering, perhaps in a spur-of-the-moment revulsion, rose before the banqueters and denounced such parties as heathen. Then, casting off his military insignia, he cried out: “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.”

The centurion was at once arrested for breach of discipline. At his trial (of which we have the full record), he admitted that he had said and done that of which he was accused. Notice, there was no question of his being required to worship pagan gods. His motive for quitting was, as he had declared it, that it is “not right for a Christian man, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Because of his stand, he was executed. He died in great peace of mind, asking God to bless the judge who had condemned him. For this death, on behalf of conscience, the early Church considered him a martyr.

Three years before this, Maximilian of Numidia, 21 years old and subject to military service, had refused to be inducted for much the same reason. “I cannot fight for this world,” he said. “I tell you, I am a Christian.” The military judge reminded him that there were many Christians in the Roman army. Maximilian replied, “That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.” On being executed, he, too, was acclaimed by his fellow Christians as a martyr and a saint.

What is the Church’s attitude on military service? St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that since a nation has a right to self-defense, its citizens have a duty to help defend their country. Of course, there have been Catholic pacifists (and their number has tended to increase in our times in which saturation bombing and nuclear bombing of whole populations, noncombatants as well as combatants, have raised the question whether any war today can be acceptable in conscience.)

What does the Church teach, therefore, on conscientious objection? There has still not been, and perhaps there never can be, one rule laid down for all cases that will draw the line between civic duty and conscientious disagreement. In general, the Church acknowledges the right of the government to call on its citizens to defend the nation. Even here, however, no soldier may obey military directives that are immoral, like killing the innocent. Vatican II recommended that governments make humane provision for those who conscientiously abhor bearing arms, provided that these objectors are willing to accept some other form of community service in place of fighting. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2310.)

Still, in all ages there will probably be a few prophetic individuals like SS. Marcellus and Maximilian as well as SS. Victricius and Martin of Tours, who by their readiness to suffer rather than strike back, remind the whole world that, as Pope Pius XII said, “Nothing is lost by peace; everything is lost by war.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara