Deadly Violence & Conflict Transformation article

Catholic Ideas, Institutions, and Imagination: Three Keys to Peacebuilding

Three “I”s—ideas, institutions, and imagination—are crucial for understanding how Catholicism contributes to the wider society and to peacebuilding initiatives in particular.


The good news is that we are currently witnessing an explosion of new peacebuilding institutional development in key political institutions.  The UN established the UN Peacebuilding Commission (UNPBC) five years ago.  Many countries have similarly established offices for peacebuilding within their foreign affairs organizations, such as the United States Department of State’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, and the US Department of Defense’s new core missions in Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction Operations.

The idea has gained ground that building peace that will last requires more than negotiating peace agreements among combatants, and more than deploying UN peacekeepers to enforce ceasefires and peace accords.  There is greater recognition of the idea that peacebuilding requires a greater number of activities and functions, including and integrating development, diplomacy, and defense, for a longer time frame, and by a greater number of actors, state and non-state alike.

These expanded ideas gave rise to new institutions, which are crucial because ideas and norms don’t exist in a vacuum or in the minds of individuals.  For norms to be implemented, to affect social and political change, they must be institutionalized in organizations and their practices and policies.

Here is where the good news ends regarding the growth of peacebuilding ideas in secular institutions.  These institutions were created with severe capacity gaps, and those remain five years later.  All these institutions were created with no new allocations of money and personnel.  Instead, money and people were shifted from other parts of these organizations, amidst strong turf battles.  The lack of resources signaled a lack of commitment to these new institutions that has hurt and marginalized them, making it difficult for these organizations to have any operational capacity in the field, or to be taken seriously.

For example, over five years countries have voluntarily donated $343 million to the UN Peacebuilding Fund, but only $205 million has been allocated.  Contrast that with Caritas Internationalis, with the $5 billion annual budget of its member organizations. And that is only a portion of the Catholic organizations building peace.  Operating for over 2,000 years, with reach into every country, the Church has a lot of “bandwidth.”  The practical, functional, and institutional capacities that the Church can apply toward building peace are unparalleled.


Not only are these new institutions weak, but the ideas of peace and peacebuilding they are pursuing are also limited.  They use the term peacebuilding, but they do not mean what we in the Catholic Church mean by peacebuilding.  They have a very short term focus, on negative peace, on cessation of hostilities, often by or with force, through peacekeepers or increasing the capacity of national security sector forces, and they focus heavily on states and combatants.  They do not focus on ideas prominent in Catholic peacebuilding—participation, reconciliation, right relationship, and long-term sustainability.

Participation is a hallmark of Caritas Internationalis and Catholic Relief Services, stemming from the principle of the sanctity of human life and dignity.  In contrast, in UN peace negotiations and processes, women were entirely excluded from the talks 98% of the time.  A key criticism of UNPBC consultations has been the exclusion of women’s groups.  When these new institutions talk about reconciliation, they do not mean what the Church means—healing of individuals and communities of the traumas induced by conflict, restoration of right relationship.  Instead they mean demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of armed groups, and police and security sector reforms, often with impunity and payment for those armed actors—peace at any price.  This has led to the critique of many UN brokered peace accords as amounting to men with guns excusing and paying off other men with guns for the violence they have done against women.


Why do secular organizations often have such limited ideas and institutional practices of peacebuilding?  Because of a failure of imagination, the critical leaven to building peace.

How can people build peace who have never known peace?  To build a robust, just peace, we have to be able, as Kroc Institute peacebuilding scholar John Paul Lederach notes “to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies.”

The Catholic moral and religious imagination offers many fruitful principles and practices. In our sacraments of communion and reconciliation; in our beliefs in a relational, Triune resurrected God; in our institutional structures that seek to realize these relationships of local and global church, of the Body of Christ; in Catholic social teaching of protection of human life and dignity, preference for the poor, solidarity and subsidiarity, we regularly exercise moral muscles for the common good—a rich moral imagination the world needs.

Too often our governments aim low in building peace, seeing only a world of bad choices among lesser evils. Catholic peacebuilders see a different world, where communion, peace and love are possible.  Imagining peace in war-torn areas is a challenging but crucial first step in realizing peace.

Maryann Cusimano Love
Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love is an Associate Professor of International Relations in the Politics Department of The Catholic University of America and New York Times BestsellingAuthor. Her recent books include Beyond Sovereignty: Issues for a Global Agenda (4th Edition, 2010), Morality Matters: Ethics and the War on Terrorism (forthcoming at Cornell University Press), and "What Kind of Peace Do We Seek?," in Schreiter, Appleby, and Powers, eds., Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis (Orbis, 2010).

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