I watched about two-thirds of the Burns/Cohick PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. I can’t speak with any authority on the how the filmmakers treated the subject, but I was riveted by the presentation. There is a sense in which all good history triggers the moral imagination, but a documentary on a war like Vietnam makes it virtually impossible not to think about the story Burns and Cohick told through an ethical lens.
Apparently Massimo Faggioli, a Catholic theologian who teaches at Villanova University, felt the same way. Over at Commonweal he writes about “The Vietnam War” in the context of Catholic social teaching.
Here is a taste:
The Vietnam War also helps us think about the role of wars in how doctrinal and magisterial development might occur. The Vietnam War is integral to the theological history of the post-Vatican II period, in that it took place after the end of the era of theological justification for war. In recent days we’ve had two confirming examples of the fundamental shift that has occurred in modern Catholicism: one was the reaction of Italian Catholicism (including some bishops) against the choice of Pope John XXIII, the pope of the encyclical Pacem in Terris, as patron saint of the Italian army; the other was the ratification by the Holy See of the new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
World War I and World War II also had a profound impact on Catholic theology and the magisterium. World War I had begat change not just in the doctrine of “just war,” but more broadly in the theological view of war in Catholic teaching. Benedict XV’s 1917 appeal to the leaders of the peoples at war was a failed diplomatic initiative (it had no impact on the course of the war), but it signaled a notable shift in papal language on war. The appeal made clear that Benedict XV no longer believed that he simply had to call on Catholics to pray for the end of the war, and that he understood how little sense it now made—in the face of “total warfare”—to limit himself to asking combatants to respect church buildings and the ministers of God. Indeed, he made a direct appeal for a diplomatic solution to end the war. War is thus no longer interpreted as divine punishment against a modern world that has become estranged from God; rather, the Holy See becomes a diplomatic actor in favor of multilateralism and negotiation. If World War I was not “the war to end all wars,” for papal teaching it was the beginning of the end of theological justification for war. Then, not quite thirty years later, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 created in Catholic theology the same kind of shock that led Austrian philosopher Günther Anders to talk about “an atomic theology” in confronting the impact of nuclear weapons on our understanding of God and religion.