Msgr. Stuart Swetland has lived a life of conversions

This story appears in the Making Peace feature series. View the full series.
Msgr. Stuart Swetland in his office at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan. (NCR/Toni-Ann Ortiz)

Msgr. Stuart Swetland in his office at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan. (NCR/Toni-Ann Ortiz)

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Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a boyish 57, sits behind a desk arrangement stacked on three sides with papers and books, some appearing on the verge of avalanche, in the president's office of Donnelly College in Kansas City.

Swetland has been president since 2014 of this college that historically has served immigrants and minorities, but that fact is, in many ways, entwined with a life of conversions that often leads him to straddle boundaries that others might view as impermeable. He has a proclivity, borne out in extensive writing for mostly conservative publications such as the National Catholic Register, for taking some of the most difficult sayings of the Gospel at face value and allowing them to invade his consideration of the Christian life, no matter how disturbing to him or his audience.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland in his office at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan. (NCR/Toni-Ann Ortiz)​

His 42-page-long curriculum vitae outlines an academic career that includes the U.S. Naval Academy; Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar; an advanced degree in theology from Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and two others from Rome's Lateran University through the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.; and a doctorate in Catholic social teaching.

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We met in March on the campus to talk about his military experience, his conversion to Catholicism more than three decades ago and how that affected his thinking on such issues as the use of force and modern weaponry. He detailed moments throughout his Navy career when conscience demanded he think deeply about ethical issues arising from the requirements of his position that have led, in more recent years, to deep questions about the militarism of the current era.

Pushing religion aside

Swetland was born in Pittsburgh, the son of "typical 'city of Man, city of God' Lutherans" for whom service was integral to faith.

"The verse that was probably drilled into my head the most was 'Unto whom much is given, much is expected.' You're expected to give back and so one of the ways to give back was through the military."

He was 18, he wanted to go to a good school to be a science major "and we don't have a whole lot of money, and the military academy is offering to pay for it, so there's a little bit of mercenary in there, I think. But nobody stays at the academy for those reasons because it's too difficult."

In a long autobiographical piece he wrote in 2011 for the Coming Home Network, he revealed that the U.S. Naval Academy told his parents that he probably didn't have the academic heft to make it, so they shouldn't expect much. "But I was born stubborn, so I needed to hear no more." He majored in physics, graduated first in his class and won the Rhodes scholarship.

He wasn't so fortunate in religion. When he left his Lutheran church in Pennsylvania, one his family had helped found, the congregation gave him a grand sendoff with a going-away blessing.

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At Annapolis, he attended a fairly generic Protestant service that he "didn't find comforting or challenging" so he went looking for a "civilian" church.

It was the mid-1970s, end of the Vietnam era, and when he showed up at a local Lutheran church in uniform, he had the distinct feeling he wasn't welcome. His instincts were correct. After a few weeks, he said, some members told him that he had happened upon a "peace church" and that they didn't want him showing up in uniform. The academy required he wear it, so that ended his attendance.

It was not the last time that he would encounter members of the same church, professing the same faith and reading the same Bible, coming to radically different conclusions.

The result at the time was an 18-year-old who pushed religion aside. He "bracketed" the basic claims of the faith, "dismissing Christianity as a religion that was hopelessly confused." He plunged into his studies and found himself at Oxford in October 1981.

He was encouraged by former Rhodes scholars from the Navy to move from science and begin formal study to investigate the moral and ethical questions that had captured his imagination from an early age. They convinced him to study politics, philosophy and economics. Later, with the memory of the 1960s My Lai massacre in Vietnam still vivid in military circles and with a growing understanding of the effects of war on young military members, he was tapped, because of his work in philosophy and ethics, to teach military ethics to Navy recruits.

Faith returns at Oxford

If religion had been pushed to the side at the naval academy, it came roaring back at him at Oxford.

This Protestant who, according to his written testimony, had at several points in his life given himself over to Christ, now began a deep examination of the basic assumptions of the Christian faith, beginning with "Did Jesus exist?" and "Did he really rise?"

The questions led to an intense study of the biblical texts, bolstered by the memories of childhood faith and the conviction that "on some level of my being, I knew that I had encountered the living God in my life." His journey continued, first through an evangelical Anglican church in Oxford and, ultimately, as he continued studying, a growing conviction about the truth of the Catholic church and what it teaches.

"I had come to believe," he wrote for the Coming Home Network, "that the church was who she claimed to be. The fact that I still had difficulties with some of her teachings didn't really matter. As [John Henry] Newman said, 'Ten thousand difficulties do not make for one doubt.' "

While all of that was going on, he had fallen in with a small group of young intellectuals and was having dinner regularly with them, four of whom were active Catholics. One of them was Dermot Quinn, now teaching at Seton Hall University, and another was Robert George, a high-profile conservative Catholic and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. Swetland writes that the friends helped him work through all the "inherited" anti-Catholic prejudice "of a typical evangelical Protestant."

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George, in a phone interview, recalled that the group regularly engaged -- over single-malt Scotch that Swetland was able to procure from a nearby commissary "for a song" -- in long discussions of ideas. No matter where they started, whether in sociology, history, ethics or philosophy, "ineluctably, we would end up at religion. And Stuart, whether as devil's advocate or out of sincere conviction -- I to this day do not know -- was a fierce defender of the Lutheran Reformation."

The nightly debates went on for months. According to George, Swetland gave his dinner companions no indication that his mind was turning in a new direction until, one day on the streets of Oxford, they happened to meet up, one leaving the university, the other returning. In response to George's question, "Where are you coming from?", Swetland answered, "The Catholic chaplaincy at Rose Place. I've decided to seek reception into the Catholic church."

"You could have knocked me over with a feather," said George. "I was stunned. There was no gradual wearing down of the Protestant defenses that I could perceive," he said with a laugh.

Swetland asked him to be his sponsor -- in effect, his godfather -- and, while considering it a great honor, George's first reaction, he said, chuckling at the recollection, was to ask him, "Are you sure you know what you're doing here? You know you've got to actually believe all this stuff you've been denying for the past several months."

Swetland became a member of the Catholic church before his graduation from Oxford in 1984.

Soon after, he was aboard the destroyer USS Kidd in the Aegean Sea heading for Haifa, Israel, when the ship received reports that a TWA flight had been hijacked to Beirut by members of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad. Among those on board were five Navy divers, including a shipmate whom Swetland would soon learn had been tortured and shot in the head.

President Ronald Reagan decided to respond quickly and Swetland was called on to command a small boat that would, at high speed, pick up Navy Seals who were going to create a diversion ashore to draw the enemy's fire before swimming out to sea. He was told that there was a more than 50-50 chance of casualties.

He wrote that a great anger took hold of him and it quickly turned to hatred toward those who killed his shipmate. "I was glad I had been chosen for this mission, even though it put my life in danger. I wanted to kill the terrorists who had killed" his friend.

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Ultimately, the mission was called off and he was left with himself and his hatred. But even before that occurred, he had begun to pray the rosary that he had recently learned.

"As I prayed, the words of the Our Father struck me as never before," he wrote in his autobiographical piece. " 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Forgive? How could God possibly ask me to forgive the thugs who had tortured and killed a brave American sailor?"

He searched for the loopholes only to come to the conclusion: "The gospel of Jesus Christ is true, and it does not admit of exceptions. If I had died that night," he wrote in 2011, "my salvation would have been in jeopardy. I had hated those terrorists from my heart. I wanted them dead."

Before that night was over, he said he had "another conversion: I learned the meaning of mercy, forgiveness, and love." Floating around the Aegean, "God gave me the actual grace -- the supernatural power -- to help me let go of my hatred and wrath."

He is convinced that it was the grace he had received in becoming Catholic that was at work. He was, he wrote, "saved from myself" and the "conversion from hatred to love -- one of many in my life -- brought me closer to discovering my call to the priesthood."

The episode is illustrative of both the seriousness with which Swetland embraces his Catholicism and of the seriousness with which, at times, he challenges his own presumptions.

Rethinking war

It may also be such seriousness that is behind his belief that the post-Cold-War era is summoning the church, especially the church in the United States, to rethink some fundamental points about war.

The opinion has roots in another Navy experience, much earlier than the episode in the Aegean. It occurred when he was deployed to a ballistic missile submarine for the summer as a midshipman. It was the first time the young cadet confronted questions about the wisdom and morality of nuclear deterrence.

For someone regularly pestered by big ethical issues, the questions were unavoidable: The sub carried 16 missiles, each with the potential to have 10 warheads and each of them could be targeted independently.

Each warhead, he said, was 10 to 30 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. "So you do the math, and you could destroy up to 160 cities, which for all practical purposes was the whole of the Soviet Union at the time."

"We were handmaidens to the doomsday machine," he said. "Every day we practiced for a football game we'd never play and if we ever did play, we'd already lost."

Deterrence only works, he said, "if you have people who are willing to turn the key and push that button." Otherwise, the weapons aren't a deterrent.


"But then I said, 'Wait a minute, how can we threaten to do what we know is immoral to do?' I wasn't a Catholic. I wasn't even thinking about becoming a Catholic, but I was reading a lot of philosophy, and most moral philosophy would say your intention has a lot to do with the morality of the act, and is determinative. … If we have real people who are ready to turn those keys and push those buttons, then we've already formed them to be mass murders. They're just waiting for the conditions to be met. Which is totally external to their choice. It's when they're ordered to do so."


That is how, in the belly of a nuclear sub, the summer he turned 20, Swetland came to a conclusion. "I couldn't tell anybody about it or it would have been career-ruining -- that I couldn't do what subs did. So I quietly made the decision I wouldn't be a nuclear submariner."

In time, he decided to leave the Navy career behind. Soon after becoming Catholic, he had thought of becoming a priest, but a priest adviser told him, "That's the zeal of the convert. If it's still there in three years, then you can do something about it."

He went back to serve in the Navy following Oxford, "and three years later it hadn't gone away, so I said, 'Maybe I need to do something about this.' "

Ultimately, he managed to convince the Navy to allow him to pursue the priesthood while still owing the service several years for his time at the academy and at Oxford.

Time to reconsider

Now as a Catholic, a priest and an educator, the questions continue to press. What may have been justified in the 1980s at the apex of the Cold War seems excessive now. By the end of that decade, a major symbol of the war, the Berlin Wall, had fallen and the Soviet empire soon collapsed. What didn't collapse was U.S. spending on defense.

"The timing is perfect," he said, to reconsider the U.S. Catholic church's tolerance for deterrence as outlined in the U.S. bishops' 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response."

Msgr. Stuart Swetland enters Donnelly College's annual convocation Mass for students, staff and faculty with Kansas City, Kan., Archbishop Joseph Naumann.

Swetland said he understands "why they pulled their punch" amid the Cold War and because "Pope John Paul II said, 'Well, if you're moving toward disarmament' " then deterrence was at least temporarily acceptable.

There's no need to reinvent the church's position, he said. "All of the moral teaching is there in that document. We just pulled our punch [and allowed for deterrence] in the end because we didn't want to make the logical conclusion from what had been said."

He also would urge the church to push selective conscientious objection. While the military recognizes conscientious objection of religious groups that oppose all war, "one of the things that the American military has never accepted that Catholic social teaching and the standard ethic on war and peace demands," he said, "is the ability of individuals to make selective conscientious objection."

He would also like to see an examination of the role of military chaplains, a rethinking of the American "formal policy requiring unconditional surrender," something the just war theory "has never recognized as a just demand that you can make upon your enemy."

It is difficult terrain, he has come to understand, even when popes are in agreement. His objection to the Iraq War as unjust, for instance, brought stinging rebuke from conservative quarters.

More recently, when he weighed in to counter a disparaging characterization of Islam from some Catholic quarters, he ended up in a debate on Relevant Radio, where he has his own daily show, "Go Ask Your Father," and generated a fair internet storm over the position.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland uses audio equipment in his office at Donnelly College. (NCR/Toni-Ann Ortiz)

The submariner for a summer who had contemplated the worst case believes the United States could send a strong message to the world by reducing military spending. He notes the familiar statistic that the United States spends more on the military than the next six countries combined and that most of those countries are allies.

"China is building up and North Korea, so it's probably Pollyanna-ish to think we can get to an abolition of nuclear weapons, though that would be my dream," he said. "And it's the dream of every pope, conservative, liberal and in between, from John XXIII to Francis. I think our bishops could take a lead on this if they would say, 'Enough! Basta!' "

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The influences keeping the military industrial complex functioning at a high level have as much to do with the Pentagon spending that occurs in almost every congressional district as it does with foreign threats. The complex, said Swetland, is aimed at keeping a strong triad -- missiles on subs, missiles on land, and missiles on bombers in the air.

"And now, of course," he adds, "we can launch cruise missiles from almost any platform."

If the U.S. is intent on keeping the triad intact "that's a huge chunk of the budget, just to start with, because these things are not inexpensive to maintain, and we've got a modernization issue coming up. A lot of these weapons systems are getting to the end of their planned usefulness. We have to either update them or refurbish them."

The timing is right, he said, for us to ask, "Do we really need this kind of deterrent, and is it the moral thing to do?"

Related: "New NCR series delves into questions of peace" (Sept. 19, 2016)

He asks whether the condition that John Paul II placed on deterrence has been met -- that it is tolerable only if the country is moving toward disarmament. "Let's be honest. Let's get the best minds we have in moral theology, the military, etc., and let's do what we did with the peace pastoral. Let's have a discussion: Is it moral to threaten to kill those we know it's wrong to kill?

"I think I know the answer to that question," he said, "but if we examine that honestly, you know. If we're really serious about being a pro-life church, let's be pro-life and get to the bottom of the question."

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. Video by Traci Badalucco, NCR Bertelsen intern; graphics by Mick Forgey, web editor.]

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