Discerning Consciences

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Just before the 1990 Gulf War, Regis Director of Catholic Studies Michael Baxter assembled a team of counselors and traveled to Germany. In bars and backrooms, Baxter and the team spoke with U.S. soldiers who were considering becoming conscientious objectors.

The soldiers were weeks from being redeployed to the Persian Gulf — and to a different era than when they enlisted during the Cold War. As part of the process, the soldiers met with the group to discern their consciences and fill out military paperwork.

Their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush instituted the stop-loss program, which retains service members past their original contractual end-of-service date, and conscientious objectors were met with resistance by the military. But Baxter continued his work. When he and the counselors returned home, they started a campaign of letter-writing to the military in support of the conscientious objectors.

"I was always motivated by the idea that someone is caught in the machine of war and has conscience qualms about it, and no one wants to hear it," Baxter said. "The Church teaches that this is an issue that one must discern by conscience. I thought the Church should be there."

Baxter, a former priest, joined the Regis faculty in 2015. Between earning a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Duke University in 1996 and teaching, Baxter dedicated a large part of his career to counseling conscientious objectors. He got his start in 1980 in Colorado Springs when he was in his novitiate, a period of prayer and community for those intending to become Jesuit priests, and encountered peace activists.

"In listening to some of the people in Colorado Springs and their view on war and violence and the teachings of Jesus, I was very struck by its truthfulness," he said. After President Jimmy Carter reactivated draft registration, Baxter joined a group to "leaflet post offices inviting young men who had to register for the draft to consider the moral implications of doing so. That's how I got directly into draft and military counseling."

Since then, Baxter has met with soldiers who have been deployed in war zones from Kuwait to Afghanistan. In 2001, before 9/11, he helped restart the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which supports conscientious objectors through counseling, education and advocacy. He served as the director of the organization until 2012.

Twenty years after 9/11, as the last troops left Afghanistan this fall, Baxter, who lost a seminary classmate at the Pentagon during the attacks, was sought out by Catholic media to reflect on the war. In an interview with the Catholic news website Crux, he shared the sadness he felt for 9/11 victims, the service members who were killed or had a difficult time returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq, and the legacy of the war.

In the years after 9/11, the war often made its way into his classroom discussions. At Regis, Baxter's courses have included Peace and Justice in Catholic Social Thought and Catholic Social Justice. Often, at the beginning of the semester, Baxter will ask students to name the countries that border Afghanistan. It's rare when civilian students can.

Throughout his career, his position on war has remained the same.

"We always were anti-war. But we say we don't counsel pacifism or conscientious objection — we counsel young people and help them discern their consciences," Baxter said. "Our phrase was, 'We stop war one by one by one' ... It's work, it takes time, but it's amazing. And it's hopeful, too."