Deadly Violence & Conflict Transformation article

Catholic Contributions to Modern Peacebuilding

Some people say that Catholic Social Teaching is the Church’s Best Kept Secret.  If that is true,  Catholic peacebuilding may be Catholic Social Teaching’s Best Kept Secret.  From South Sudan and Central America to Congo and Colombia, the Catholic Church is a powerful force for peace, freedom, justice and reconciliation.  But that impressive and courageous peacebuilding work of the Catholic community is often unknown, unheralded and under-analyzed.

The heads of several of the international Catholic organizations most deeply involved in peacebuilding joined scholars in Rome on June 30 for a conference in Rome on “The Future of Peacebuilding: Contributions from Catholic Theology, Ethics, Praxis.”  The conference was sponsored by the Catholic Peacebuilding Network (CPN), based at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and 9 other academic institutes, development agencies, and peace organizations affiliated with the CPN.

With an audience of diplomats, aid workers, peacebuilding practitioners and academics, the conference focused on several questions.

What Is Catholic about Peacebuilding?

The speakers highighted several cases of Catholic peacebuilding.  In the keynote address, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave a personal reflection on insights he has gained from his peacebuilding work in his native Ghana.  Fr. William Headley, dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, drew lessons from the Church’s peacebuilding in Burundi, especially the engagement of Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with the Church in Burundi.  Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International, provided an overview of Pax Christi’s long-standing support for the multi-faceted peacebuilding work of the Catholic Church in Sudan. In his first public address since being elected secretary general of the Vatican agency Caritas Internationalis, Michel Roy, described the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative in Northern Uganda.  I highlighted the Church’s engagement with armed actors in Colombia.

One could view the Church’s peacebuilding role in these and other conflicts through the standard metrics of social science or conflict resolution theories.  To some extent that is valid, for, as Headley noted, we must humbly acknowledge that many of the “practical resources [Catholics] use for conflict analysis, mediation, trauma healing, [and] reconciliation were developed outside of the Catholic context” by other faith groups, secular NGOs, scholars, and governments.  But there is more to it than that, according to Headley.  “Ethical reflection, theology and spirituality are not project activities, skills or management tools” of secular NGOs.  Reflecting on lessons learned from two decades of peacebuilding work, Claudio Betti, director of Special Operations for the Sant’Egidio Community in Rome, made a similar point: “the Church is not and never will be only part of ‘civil society.’”  Without underestimating the importance of peacebuilding skills and strategies, Cardinal Turkson emphasized the Church’s capacity to address the personal dimension of peacebuilding: “Violence manifests itself through people, so peacebuilding starts with changing the heart…. As Christians we have faith and grace to change hearts.”

What secular approaches to peacebuilding miss is the peacebuilding power of faith; not faith in general, but particular kinds of faith – in this case Catholic.   One can only understand what the Catholic Church is doing in Ghana, Sudan, or Burundi if one understands that its mission and self-understanding is shaped by a specific set of Catholic beliefs, practices and institutions – and the effectiveness of the Church’s peacebuilding is derived in large measure from its Catholic identity.

The point here is not that Catholic peacebuilders should retreat into a parochial ghetto.  Engaging with other religious bodies, civil society groups, and governments in promoting peace is part of what “catholic” peacebuilding means.  But peacebuilding can be narrow and sterile when it is not animated by the Church’s rich tradition of spirituality, theology and ethics.

What Makes Catholic Peacebuilding Effective?

Conference participants highlighted several elements of effective peace building.

First, peacebuilding is effective when it is strategic — that is, when it addresses all factors (military, economic, political, cultural), and all actors, at all levels – and also addresses how these actors, factors, and levels relate to one another.  Roy noted that the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative in Northern Uganda was distinctive because it undertook peacebuilding from the village level to the United Nations and included not just a formal role in the official peace process but also mediation of local conflicts, trauma healing, efforts to reintegrate rebels into their communities, and extensive relief and development programs.

The same was true of the Church’s work in Sudan.  Dennis noted that, as violence flares anew in South Sudan, the “Catholic community is present and fully engaged, using international networks to expose brutality, accompanying communities caught in the violence, making strong public statements in an effort to protect those being harmed, promoting reconciliation, [and] encouraging the development of just political processes and structures.”

Second, this mulit-level, multi-faceted approach to peacebuilding is possible only if peacebuilding is done through Church structures and Catholic institutions – i.e., episcopal conferences, Caritas agencies, Catholic educational institutions, and Catholic lay organizations.  In some ways, it is less complicated and easier to work as an independent NGO with its own programs and accountable only to itself.  But Catholic peacebuilding is successful, not because of a few activists working at the margins of Church life, but when peacebuilding is integral to and animates the life of Catholic institutions.  Moreover, even then, the disparate work of many different kinds of Catholic institutions and other actors must be integrated and coordinated.  That is the insight behind the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, which connects a variety of Catholic peacebuilders in new ways that enable them to respond to needs identified by the Church that cannot easily be met by any one or two institutions alone, or by the same types of institutions.

Third, genuine peacebuilding must be sustained, robust, and long-term; there are no easy or quick solutions to violent conflict, especially conflicts of long-standing duration.  Short-term engagement – e.g., the week-long seminar – can sometimes be helpful, but what is most helpful is an intentional, systematic, long-term process of accompaniment.   Maryann Cusimano Love, associate professor of political science at the Catholic University of America, noted that one difference between the peacebuilding initiatives of political institutions, such as the UN Peacebuilding Commission and new offices at the U.S. State and Defense Departments, is that the government programs have an understanding of peacebuilding that is far less robust and lacks the “moral imagination” and long-term engagement of most Catholic approaches.

How Can Catholic Peacebuilding Inform, and Be Informed By, Theology and Ethics?

Several speakers commented on the need for the further development of a theology of peace that is comparable in scope and sophistication to the Church’s teaching on the use of force.  For example, how would our understanding of peacebuilding change if the Church’s teaching on inter-religious dialogue, Christology, reconciliation, human rights, development and ecclesiology were seen through a peacebuilding lens?  If we reflect on “lived” Catholic peacebuilding, it becomes clear that there are areas where practice might inform theology and vice-versa.

Fr. Robert Schreiter, a professor at the Catholic Theological Union, cited several challenges for the theology and praxis of Catholic peacebuilding:  “shaping policies and practices for ius post bellum”; giving greater attention to social forgiveness; and translating a theology and ethics of peacebuilding into terms intelligible to peacebuilders of other faiths and the secular world, and making it accessible to grassroots communities.  I would add two other examples: the role of the Church in facilitating peace processes, a widespread practice about which there has been little systematic reflection, and approaches to self-determination and secession, about which there is also a dearth of reflection in official Catholic teaching.

Concluding Thoughts

I might be the last person on the planet not to have a Facebook page.  But if I had a Facebook page, I could choose my “interests” – like skiing, skydiving, pinochle…. or peacebuilding!  In the world according to Facebook, peacebuilding is an “interest” – with its own symbol! I suppose that is something to be celebrated.  But in the world according to Catholic social teaching, peacebuilding can never be a mere interest, an optional activity that a few of us might engage in.  No! For Christians, peacebuilding is not an interest but an imperative; it is our vocation.  As Schreiter emphasized, peacebuilding “is more than something the Church can do” because of its global reach and ubiquitous presence in many areas of conflict.  “It is something the Church must do if it is to be faithful to its Lord, … an utter requirement for our participation in God’s reconciling action in the world.”

Finding ways to make peacebuilding more authentically Catholic, more effective, and more theologically grounded is a continuing challenge for Catholic peacebuilders.

Gerard Powers
Gerard Powers is director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He also coordinates the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and is co-editor (with Schreiter & Appleby) of Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics and Praxis (2010).

One thought on “Catholic Contributions to Modern Peacebuilding

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.