THE BLOG
08/02/2016 05:35 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2017

Shifting The Lens: Just Peace And Nonviolence

Disheartening trends of global violence continue with the latest attacks in Iraq, Germany, and France, including the direct taking of a Catholic priest's life. The lens we use to respond to these violent habits, especially as a Catholic Church is of utmost importance for both better effectiveness and faithfulness.

As a grateful participant in the April conference in Rome on just peace and nonviolence, I previously wrote about being deeply moved by the encounter with fellow Catholic peacemakers who lived in violent conflict zones. Out of this experience, I want to respond to this interview in Our Sunday Visitor about the conference outcome document. The person interviewed was a respected colleague, Dr. Gerard Powers, professor of the Practice of Catholic Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame.

I, and the Conference, appreciate and agree with Gerard on the following points: Catholic life needs to better integrate peacebuilding; there is value in a just peace theory; just war theory is unfortunately being used primarily in an unhealthy way; and the significant value of a new Papal document on this issue. So, hopefully there is a lot of common ground to work on together.

There are four other points of divergence, which I want to address with the hope of deepening the dialogue as we seek God's truth together. These points arise in large part out of an emphasis on the pastoral question about how we better form peacemakers as a Catholic Church.

First, in the interview there is no clear articulation of how Jesus' way corresponds to the Catholic Church continuing to use and teach the just war theory. This is not a minor point. Yes, the Catholic Church uses both scripture and tradition, but as we Catholics all know it is an "and" not an "or" relationship. Jesus' way needs a clear role and any moral teaching needs to have consistency with that way. Scripture scholarship is basically unanimous that Jesus models a way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies. The call to love our neighbor must always be consistent with how Jesus loved (John 13:34), and our perceived enemies always remain our neighbors. Recent Popes have confirmed this reality about Jesus, and the conference builds its' appeal consistent with this realism about Jesus.

Second, the claim is made that Catholic social doctrine already has a just peace theory. In general, this is a promising point and something we can build on together. The article says that "the vision, principles, criteria for moral action constitute the substance of a just peace theory." Yet, it's not clear which criteria are intended here. Is it the just war criteria or something broader? Either way, I agree that Catholic social doctrine certainly has elements of a just peace theory. But Catholic social doctrine has yet to explicitly identify, explain, and prioritize a just peace theory/approach. For instance, the conference alluded to seven specific just peace criteria to guide moral action across all stages of conflict, including during violent conflict. These criteria and this method of application have not yet been affirmed in Catholic social doctrine. There are also specific virtues, such as the virtue of nonviolent peacemaking, which were discussed as part of a virtue-based, just peace approach consistent with Gospel nonviolence. Examples of a similar just peace approach have been articulated by others on lethal drones, nuclear weapons, and ISIS.

Third, the interview claims that the "highly restrictive" version of just war theory, which the "Catholic Church uses," does not necessarily undermine the development of nonviolent capacities. It may be true that the "highly restrictive" version is better than the less restrictive version. However, either version which includes the suggestion that war may be justifiable, still cultivates social conditions (ex. heavy preparations for war) that also make it more likely our society will make choices that undermine the development of nonviolent capacities. Further, even an emphasis on the "highly restrictive" version has in the concrete undermined the formation of Christian peacemakers or "peacebuilders." For instance, we see how rarely we, including Catholics, speak about or promote nonviolent resistance (esp. boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience, etc.) to injustice and violence. We see how minimal resistance is mounted by most leaders, including Catholics, to enormous military spending, primarily in countries with large militaries such as the U.S. We see how little we hear from leaders, including most Catholics, or key advocacy organizations on the proven practice of unarmed civilian protection (25+ years old). We see how little we hear from leaders, including Catholics, about the need to humanize or illuminate the dignity of our enemies, especially regarding people in groups like ISIS. When the Afghanistan war was on the horizon, most Catholic leaders had few constructive nonviolent suggestions before the war began. Instead, they primarily lifted up the "legitimate defense" language before the bombs dropped, which in large part simply emboldened the war effort. That war of course enhanced the conditions for the next Iraq war in 2003, led to the spreading of non-state violent groups, and to the development of ISIS in Iraq. It is of course not the "intent" of the "restrictive use" for such things to occur, but good intent is not sufficient for discipleship or moral living. It should not be a surprise that as Christ's teaching gets distorted with the concept of just war, the distortion will predictably grow beyond what we intend or may even imagine.

The interview cites the Iraq war of 2003 as a good example of the "highly restrictive" use by the Catholic Church. Pope John Paull II was certainly strong on saying no to war as a practice itself, i.e. "always a defeat for humanity." The U.S. Catholic Bishops wisely raised questions of concern but did not clearly conclude the war was unjust; except for one Romanian Bishop in Ohio, who also called on all Catholics in his diocese to not participate in the war. And in the concrete reality, the war proceeded and the devastating impacts continue today.

If the interviewee agrees that in the concrete reality the just war theory is primarily being used to endorse rather than prevent war for over 1600 years and even if it's not, for the sake of argument, how the "Church uses it," doesn't that strongly suggest it is not a workable moral frame in practice and the Catholic Church should at the very least develop an alternative moral approach to trying to prevent, limit and as Vatican II teaches (Pastoral Constitution, par. 82), to outlaw war?

Let's imagine for a moment if the Catholic Church were to shift to an explicit just peace approach consistent with Gospel nonviolence. As Catholics, we would likely develop a better mindset for nonviolent alternatives -- with more urgent attention, creative imagination, and persistent will to commit to such practices. Although Catholics do some great peacebuilding, there would likely be an increased development of nonviolent and peacebuilding practices, as well as less Catholics giving their energy to preparing for war. When the Pope said not to "bomb or make war" on ISIS, Catholics would be further energized and organize around creative, effective nonviolent resistance practices. Instead, with a just war infused mentality, most U.S. Catholic press and leaders focused their discussion on the apparent openness to some military action and how much made sense. Therefore, the conference appeal was proposing a new moral framework, not the withdrawal of moral judgement about war, and addressing all versions of the just war concept not simply the more "permissive use."

Fourth, the interview refers to the vocation for peacebuilding and how this is broader than Gandhi and MLK's approach of "civil resistance." Just to clarify, Gandhi was clear that his approach to nonviolence or Satyagraha (truth/soul-force) consisted of both a constructive and obstructive program (civil resistance), which enabled each other. For Gandhi, the former is the more important, which includes social uplift and the constructive "creation of alternatives to armed conflict;" which is what the interviewee refers to as "peacebuilding." MLK was building off Gandhi's Satyagraha approach but oriented by his Christianity. This is important because it illuminates how turning to an explicit just peace theory consistent with Gospel nonviolence is central to incorporating both the constructive and obstructive programs, i.e. more fully becoming "peacebuilders" or as Pope Francis says "peacemakers."

As Pope Francis proclaimed, "In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of peace is spoken." Therefore, drawing on the recent Vatican conference I humbly suggest that the Catholic Church should embody Gospel nonviolence by articulating an explicit Just Peace approach with specific criteria, virtues, and practices to be more faithful to Jesus, better build just peace, better prevent violence, defuse ongoing violence, heal well after violence, draw society away from war sooner, and make a clearer commitment to Catholic social teaching's explicit call to outlaw war. I hope the fruitful dialogue will continue and as a Catholic Church we can together significantly scale-up faithful, effective nonviolent practices.