What You Can’t Say in the Prima Fila
Joshua Casteel
Sitting beneath a warm Roman sun, I rehearsed my salutation during the hours
long general audience, listening to cheers, waves, greetings and reflections uttered in
Italian, German, English, Polish, Spanish, and French.
After the general audience, Benedict sat in his chair as cardinals and archbishops
processed to him, kneeling and kissing the papal ring in customary fashion. Then finally
came my moment. I tried to remember to smile. Benedict’s delicacy, however, made
smiling easy. His small stature and modest eyes softened my posture. He extended to me
two gentle hands, fingers dry and chafed. I held them wondering if his skin had become
abrased from the papers of academia, or perhaps from the daily rituals of Mass, the
ceremonial washing of the hands, chalice and plate.
“Holy Father, my name is Joshua Casteel,” I said. “I was formerly a US Army
interrogator at Abu Gh—”
“An interrogator?” he interjected with curious surprise. For a moment it even
seemed as if my mention of having been an interrogator pleased him.
“—a US Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison. In Baghdad.”
His eyes wearied, looking to me more as might a father confessor. His hands felt
warm. I continued my rehearsed greeting.
“I went on to become a conscientious objector. Not only did your writings help to
save my faith, but they also showed me a path to nonviolence and ultimately helped bring
me to the Catholic Church.”
He seemed to stare silently at me for much longer than actually we were
permitted, and then tenderly he said to me, “I will pray for you.”
I then reached for a writing of mine, a reflection I had written about how the
Magnificat and the Rosary had wounded my conscience at Abu Ghraib. I brought to him
prayerful words I had not occasion to state to him aloud.
Liberty and democracy were not exactly to the forefront of my mind when
first I was told to lock and load my M16. Sweat bleeding through my body
armor, and pain crouching my joints into positions unfamiliar, I knelt in
the bed of a two-ton armored truck, barrel pointed in the direction of the
Iraqi countryside. A world blew by me at 70 miles per hour, and all that
went through my mind were the wordless instincts commanding, “Don’t
stop scanning! Keep eyes on your field of fire. Watch the rooftops. Huts.
Roadside brush.” For twenty minutes I prepared and steadied my hands
and eyes to exact lethal force. And for twenty minutes my mind was
utterly blank. Not a thought. Just the immediacy of action, and sweat,
and carbon…
“It is my humble hope, Holy Father, that my words might bless you, as your
words have blessed me,” to which he simply replied, “Thank you.” Then, as anticipated,
papal aids brushed me on my way.
A few brief moments with the Holy Father. I paused to consider how it was I had
just been given the opportunity to meet the man whose book Introduction to Christianity
had once saved my waning faith and whose first papal encyclical proclaimed Deus
Caritas Est. Something like a historical grief swept over me. It was an exhilarating
encounter. But I was keenly aware, walking away from this gentle man of dreadful
authority, that the only reason I had been afforded such an encounter was not because of
who I was – one of his flock – but because of what I had once been: a military
interrogator at place of supreme dehumanization.
…And then twenty minutes of nothing. Not a proverb. Not a thought.
Nothing but the sites of my weapon and the foreign images they were
aimed upon.
That “nothing” is a place you go to when the world of ideas ceases to be
relevant. It’s a place you go to when you can’t quite explain why hostility
exists between you and people you’ve never met. For a friend of mine, it
was a place he went to when he returned from war haunted by the faces of
the men whose torture he had assisted, and by the fingerprints of corpses
he was ordered to catalogue after payloads of high detonation explosives
tore apart a city once recognized by the name “Fallujah.” My friend,
struggling to put words to this great nothing, knelt once before me in a
male toilet stall in an Army latrine, confessing to me his sins, and his
desire for reconciliation with God.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned. I have never confessed,” he said to
I recounted this and other testimony, days before my encounter with the Holy
Father, with the American prelate, Cardinal James Francis Stafford, who listened intently
to my accounts of legalized torture, mass false arrests and civilian casualties. I confessed
to him my utter dismay at how American Catholics could continue justifying submission
to such unjust political authority. “Is not our highest allegiance to the Kingdom of God?”
I asked.
“Once again, it seems, we’re discussing the centuries old issue of nationalism,” he
“Eminence, it’s one thing to lobby governments to improve their policies, but in
the meantime why aren’t Catholics simply told to resist?” I asked. “We’re over a billion
and half of the world’s population. Our power to stop the spread of evil is simply not to
do it. To refuse the offering up of our bodies to illegitimate authorities. And it’s not
policy makers and theologians whose bodies come home from unjust wars with posttraumatic stress disorder. It’s my body.”
…For months in Iraq, I prayed the daily offices. Fleeing continually to
prayer, I sought something to escape the nothing, the blankness and
blindness of daily violence. Morning and evening and noontime alike, I
knelt alone, lit candles, sang. Often Chaplains could not make it to the
prison due to convoy difficulties and security concerns. Sometimes I
would pray the Mass liturgy in their absence, and linger for an hour or
more with my head upon my book of prayer, the silence pounding upon
me. In the midst of all the chaos, sound, and movement, these times were
my own, an entire world unto itself. I lived in a church of self-creation
and improvisation. But a time came when I could no longer withstand the
contradiction between the prayers of my solitude and the duties of my
hours spent with the enemy. What am I truly praying, when I repeat
Mary’s declaration of the coming of the Just One - the One who will
elevate the poor and the downtrodden? Am I saying these things so that I,
myself, might remain all the more secure…?
“You are on a noble path, Joshua,” Cardinal Stafford said to me, “But the path is
not well traveled. Caro est cardo salutis. ‘The body is the hinge of salvation,’ both your
body and our Body. Learning to see an invisible kingdom is the heart of the Christian
journey. Such sight, however, is not easily brought to maturity. My sentiments and
prayers are with you.”
Cardinal Stafford extended to me and my companions from the Catholic Peace
Fellowship, Michael Griffin and Tom Cornell, two hours worth of open ears and sagely
counsel. We asked him for the opportunity to meet privately with the Holy Father.
“I have to be careful not to instrumentalize him,” he respectfully cautioned us.
“First and foremost he is the Universal Pastor, secondarily is he a man of policy. We are
a Body. Personal relationships must always be our guide. And relationships only happen
in the way they do: slowly, personally and with care.”
Something of the Cardinal’s words made me recall my training and work at Abu
Ghraib. The textbook definition of interrogation is to exploit the greatest amount of
intelligence in the least amount of time. To be a combat interrogator is to instrumentalize
persons for their utility, to transform human beings into instruments of tactical efficiency.
A detainee is not a man, he is a possessor of information. The successor of St. Peter is
also a man of possession, namely grave responsibility. Certainly it was and continues to
be my desire to see, “in the least amount of time,” an end to bloodshed in Iraq. Yet, an
instructive irony Cardinal Stafford illuminated to me was my subtle wish to
instrumentalize the authority of a hierarchical institution: just tell American Catholics
what to do.
In another two-hour conversation, this time with Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the
Preacher of the Papal Household known for eloquent denouncements of violence, I asked,
“Why cannot the Holy Father simply order Catholics not to fight in wars deemed unjust
by the Church?” A rather logical question, given the fact that the just war tradition has
been effectively gutted by US policies which prohibit the quintessential requirement of
just war logic: selective objection to unjust wars. Perhaps this question, however, is not
very practical given the response of Catholics to other moral mandates in recent history.
Yet, my question was nothing more than: why have a just war tradition if Catholics
serving in the armed forces, once sworn to follow orders, cannot legally refuse the order
to fight in unjust wars?
Catholic shepherds ranging from Fr. Cantalamessa, to Vatican Secretary of State
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI all have decried, with
language impassioned and unambiguous, the illegality, injustice, and immorality of the
Iraq War, and yet the war never could have been waged were it not for the 400,000
Catholics serving in the US military and a US Congress 30% of whom profess Catholic
identity. If the body is indeed the hinge of salvation, how then ought Catholics use
theirs? How ought the Church use Hers?
…When I walked into the interrogation booth, I’d stare across the table at
taxi drivers, at local laborers, at school boys, at young fathers, at Imams,
and at veterans of previous Iraqi wars - all of whom are now called “the
insurgency” in the media, or were labeled “anti-democratic forces” by
the generals in Iraq. One day I interrogated a man accused of attacking
coalition forces. He laughed at me, and asked, “Who can do this? Let’s
say I take one soldier, or even one tank. You bring back five jets and ten
tanks.” A Bible passage - Revelation 13 - crossed my mind, describing the
shock and awe of those asking “who can wage war against the beast, who
brings fire to fall from the sky?” Fighter jets actually raged across the
Fallujah sky that week. The earth shook for miles as payload after
payload came down upon that city. And my friend collected fingerprints
of the nameless amidst the rubble….
In his inaugural Address to the Diplomatic Corps on September 29th 2006,
Cardinal Bertone provided a brief history of contemporary ecclesial responses to ancient
political dilemmas, quandaries looming back to the conversion of Emperor Constantine,
further problematized by the birth of modern nation states, theories of capital, and
increasingly secular Enlightenment reasoning.
As to the role of diplomats and other civil servants, Cardinal Bertone said, “They
must be upright and logical, believe in sincere dialogue and engage to give a new impetus
to solidarity between all peoples, especially with a view to reconsidering the question of
the foreign debt of the poorest countries, so that individuals and especially children will
never again die of hunger or of endemic diseases, never again be the innocent victims of
war or local conflict and never again be abused for their convictions or beliefs.”
Cardinal Bertone isolated the central issue of these disparate global injustices with
the words of Paul VI, stressing that diplomacy "has a more direct bearing on the real and
concrete problems of social life, and first and foremost on that which, one can say,
regulates them all: the problem of peace" (Address to the Diplomatic Corps, 8 January
…When I traveled outside the prison walls on convoys, terror surged
through my heart. I was not afraid of being killed. I had accepted that
fate already, and found peace with God over the possibility of my death. If
you live by the sword, by the sword shall you die. If I died with a loaded
rifle, I could not be angry with God. The terror that filled me when
leaving the prison walls was the possibility of becoming one who kills.
Once while driving slowly, just outside the perimeter of the Baghdad
International Airport, I pointed my rifle as I always did, out the window of
our armored humvee. Through the sites of my rifle I saw the faces of three
young shepherd boys - probably eight years old, each. I realized in that
moment that I had just pointed a loaded automatic assault rifle at three
eight year old boys, all with whom I’d made eye contact. I can still see
them passing by me, as if in slow motion.
How would they remember that encounter? Were they used to weapons?
Had they, too, grown accustomed to living in threat? And how was I, a
supposed ambassador of the love of Jesus Christ, supposed to recall that
St. Peter says to us, “Be prepared always to proclaim the hope that is
within you.”
I must say though that it was my sin mostly that came to mind when
leaving the prison walls. What was yet unconfessed? With whom had I
not reconciled? Lord, please do not let this trigger pull…
Peace through diplomacy. Or perhaps as Cardinal Stafford indicated to me:
personal relationships. The Catholic moral mandate – theologically, politically,
personally – is to call all persons to communion; to reject, unilaterally if necessary, each
and every impetus to transform persons into objects of exploitation, rejecting the
instrumentalizing means-to-ends mentality which John Paul II stated was at the heart of
our “culture of death.” Cardinal Bertone furthers this vision of personalism by asking
whether “diplomacy” is merely an act of policy.
“ ‘These ways do not exclude but link up with one another: political and
diplomatic ways that are followed by implementing agreements which foresee and
forestall conflicts; juridical and institutional ways that give rise to new institutions, to
guarantee peace and security; psychological and pedagogical ways,’ I say this as a
Salesian, as a son of Don Bosco, ‘that aim to form a culture of peace through a wide
range of educational institutions; then we have the way of witness of the great prophets of
peace; the way of conscientious objection and alternative social service, and the way of
non-violence…In all these cases, the Documents of the Holy See and especially the texts
of the enlightened Magisterium of the post-war Popes are neither texts to be skimmed
through nor, even worse, to be ignored. They are texts that should be read with attention
and meditated upon, so that their ideas can be expressed in practical action and the world
can recognize the power and timeliness of the Christian message in the self-giving and
courage with which Christians act, furthering peace for all humankind today.”
The ideas seem so clear, ideas which foundational Catholic doctrines such as the
Incarnation and Transubstantiation would seem to guide our reasoning toward fleshly,
incarnate realities, not pious abstractions. As Cardinal Bertone states, the research of
intellectuals and the Documents of the enlightened Magisterium must be bound to,
incarnate within, practical action. One need not be a pacifist to hear the world’s cries for
an end to bloodshed. And yet bloodshed at the hands of Christians continues, and by no
means infrequently.
…Every time we safely concluded convoys, I’d thank God for keeping my
rounds chambered in my rifle. Before I even thanked God for my own
safety, I thanked God for keeping me from taking life. There has to be
something beyond this, I’d say to myself. Christ came to set the captives
free. How can I talk of the freedom of Christ, while playing the role of
captor and inquisitor? How can I talk of faith when I only move from
place to place by means of guns pointed in all directions - even at eight
year old shepherd boys…
When a man like Fr. Cantalamessa on March 11th 2005 preached to the Papal
Household that the Eucharist is “God’s absolute no to violence,” and John Paul II
vociferously cried, “War never again;” having seen the witness of the Church’s great
conscientious objectors – St. Marcellus, St. Martin of Tours, St. Francis of Assisi, St.
Ignatius of Loyola; and having heard the call of that dear American woman of unbearable
kindness, Dorothy Day, who prayed we might see “a mighty league of Catholic
conscientious objectors to war,” how can it be that a young Catholic convert such as
myself, feels it necessary yet again to call upon the Church to recall that She is to be the
world’s sign of peace?
The centrality of peace to the Church’s mission is precisely what most critics and
supporters alike have failed to identify in the Holy Father’s controversial address at
Regensburg. Not only did Benedict completely overthrew the medieval concept of
coercive conversion, he went far further to proclaim the utter irrationality of violence
(“Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”
Regensburg, September 12th 2006). Yet, current Catholic political theology still
functions in practice according to a medieval milieu and, frankly, needs to wake up and
smell the Reformation. Political leaders are no longer guaranteed to be ostensibly
Catholic, and thus are no longer even theoretically indebted to Catholic social teaching,
much less the Gospel. So, what are individual Catholics to do?
I asked precisely this question of a monsignor from a prominent pontifical
commission, to whom I had just told my own story of conversion. A quiet anxiety began
to build in his face and body language. Clearly uncomfortable with the topic of
conversation, he finally broke his silence.
“Why am I being lectured to?” he asked. “I have received indignant letters from
politicians in the States, even my own congressman, deriding me for representing a
Church that has given our country a reproach like none other in recent history. And here
you are lecturing me. You enlisted.”
Fair point, so I asked the monsignor if individual Catholics serving in the military
retained the moral obligation, despite legal proscriptions or permission, to question the
morality of seemingly lawful military orders. The monsignor replied, “no.”
“People picking and choosing their wars is no way to run a military,” he said.
Michael Griffin, in what was the most respectful rebuke of a spiritual authority I
have ever witnessed replied, “With all due respect, Monsignor, the mission of the Church
is not to run the military.” Michael then went into a litany of the Church’s ancient and
contemporary defenses of conscientious objection and moral resistance, at each point
showing how the Tradition is at odds with the monsignor’s view that a Catholic soldier’s
duty is mere obedience. Using the refrain, "the Church was not with you when..."
Michael recalled the martyrdom of early church conscientious objectors like St.
Marcellus (whose relics now reside beneath the high altar of Sacred Heart Basilica on
campus), and St. Martin of Tours, who declared, Miles Christi ego sum; pugnare mihi
non licet, “I am a soldier of Christ; it is not lawful for me to do violence.”
"The Church was not with you when," Michael continued, recalling great saints of
the tradition, like the eminent moral theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus
de Liguori, who wrote in the 18th century that soldiers convinced a war is unjust must
leave the military or refrain from hostile actions in order to receive absolution of sin.
Michael continued the litany through the Second Vatican Council and the pontificates of
John Paul II and Benedict XVI, all echoing the apostolic injunction to follow the Law of
God over the laws of men. (Acts 5:29)
I silently watched the eyes of a monsignor, who essentially embodied the failure
of catechesis which we were hoping to address to Vatican officials, change from cold and
stern to soft, dare I even say “convicted,” by the time we exchanged parting gestures.
I understood that look well. Such a look as the Monsignor’s had appeared upon
my own face the moment I was told during an interrogation by one of my detainees that I
was not following the commandments of Christ to love my enemies. But, this is
precisely what we are called to: conviction. Whether we hear the voice of conviction
from fellow Catholics, or from enemies on a battlefield, the Church is the world’s sign of
peace and there is no other Church except for the one composed of you and me.
And the long laborious journey of this our Pilgrim Church continues. How
tactically efficient it would be for a proclamation to come down from on high,
commanding specific obedience. What a great use of the instruments of authority. But,
what exactly would the effect of such a command be? Can self-sacrificial love be
commanded? I myself have never been tested in my pacifism, never had to turn the other
cheek physically. It is my aspiration, my icon of maturity. Yet peacemaking is not about
demands, but gifts. Not about law, but grace. We the Church are the world’s
eschatological sign that the Messianic reign of peace already came in the body and blood
of Jesus of Nazareth. And as much as I could receive well a new order of peacemaking,
as might befit my military instincts, only the change of hearts can make lasting a peace
which policies merely make provisional.
Hoping and praying for such an incarnation is sometimes gratifying, mostly
alienating and quite lonely. Talking of peace in the midst of war is no mere political or
theological abstraction for me, it is deeply personal, calling to mind the faces and names
of men I interrogated, the smell of fumes, the earth’s eruptions during the bombing
campaign which razed Fallujah to the ground, the eyes of the three young shepherd boys
who stared back at me through the sights of my M16, and hearing with laymen’s ears the
voice of a torturer who asked me to hear his very first confession in a bathroom stall.
And my wish is nothing more than to fulfill the call of St. Peter: “Be prepared always to
proclaim the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15). Yet still, my hope is not a change of
policy, but a change of persons – conversion, most of all my own.
I went to Rome mindful of the verses and sections of the Catechism I would need
to cite – how to change minds. Then I met an old man with chafed hands, I prayed before
the bones of St. Francis in Assisi, and I saw the eyes of an angered priest softened by the
touch of the Holy Spirit. I have returned home mindful that my true desire is
communion, not merely with my enemies, but also with my own household. My desire is
to speak aloud about the horror which is America’s war in Iraq and to find a Church who
dares not only to speak, but moreover to act in accordance with that spoken Gospel She
was gifted to protect.

The midday Roman sun was warm, but soft