Deadly Violence & Conflict Transformation article

Catholic Peacebuilding: A Personal View from Colombia (Part 3)

In Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis (Maryknoll, 2010) as well as in his forthcoming book, Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation (Oxford University Press, 2012), Daniel Philpott addresses the issues of transitional justice from a political perspective on reconciliation. He, like others, emphasizes the objective of restoring relationships that were harmed by injustice. This restoration includes all members of the community and not only victims and perpetrators.

Political Reconciliation in Six Difficult (But Necessary) Steps

Philpott distinguishes six practices of reconciliation that are essential to such restoration: the building of socially just institutions; acknowledgment; reparations; punishment; apology; and forgiveness (106ff).

These are very useful elements for several reasons. First, they go beyond what is called victim’s rights to identify practices that point towards the active transformation of the entire web of relationships in a community. Second, Philpott considers reconciliation as a social process, not only as something that happens between the offender and the offended. This widens the horizon of reconciliation and points towards a collective responsibility to restore broken channels of communication and harmed relationships. Third, he also emphasizes the role of the state, which is mainly responsible for the construction of just institutions, thus creating the frame within which the members of a given collective can create just relationships.

Philpott’s approach closely resembles the concept of reconciliation represented by Pablo de Greiff, head of research at the International Center for Transitional Justice, who prefers to speak about “civic trust” instead of reconciliation, emphasizing the state’s responsibility to adhere to its own legal norms and thus augment both its accountability and predictability. Fourth, Philpott, like Schreiter, does not shy away from addressing the highly controversial issues of forgiveness and punishment, which, in his view, are not mutually exclusive.

The Challenge of Restorative Justice

Building on the Colombian case, the fraught relationship between punishment and forgiveness leads me to make some recommendations concerning how to deepen some of the volume’s lines of analysis and thus advance the project of Catholic peacebuilding.

The concept of restorative justice noted in several of the volume’s essays, which seems to underlie Catholic reconciliation, is entirely absent from people’s perception or completely misunderstood as impunity. It is of utmost importance to elaborate on the strategy of restorative punishment and its relation to forgiveness, as it is important to clarify the background of forgiveness as an active decision by the victim to liberate him/herself from resentment without renouncing truth, reparations or even punishment of the perpetrator.

There is of course an enormous literature on the history of punishment (Foucault, Nussbaum, etc.), but reflection on its restorative value is very limited. This applies in particular to countries, where the prison system is so deficient and overpopulated that people leave the prison worse than they enter it, constituting more of a danger to society than before, while their victims are often left without any attention. These dilemmas need further refinement by Catholic theology and research on peacebuilding.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers…but Are They Legitimate?

John Paul Lederach’s article is characteristically full of rich and compelling illustrations of his main arguments, nourished by his vast experience in peacebuilding in places such as Colombia, among others, where he is the person of reference in this topic. His pyramid of actors distributed among the low-, mid-, and high-level is vastly popular and well known, which is why it is often used as a tool of analysis and strategy-building.

His comments on horizontal and vertical capacities are of immense value for analyzing not only the Church’s role in peacebuilding, but also for questioning the impact any organization might have on actors different from itself. If organizations did more analysis of their capacities to communicate horizontally and vertically, they probably would realize that they move in a bubble, without incentives to engage with those who think and act differently.

However, I worry that the pyramid leaves out important questions concerning the legitimacy and desirability of actors in the peacebuilding process. Indeed, there are at least two questions that require further consideration.

First, where would one locate illegal actors in this pyramid? If they are simply added to the three levels, this would suggest that they are of the same quality and enjoy the same legitimacy as civil society actors or universities. Paramilitary or mafia groups are situated in the high-level or mid-level simply because of their use of force and the accumulation of illegally acquired goods that provide them with power and coercive potential.

This leads me to the second point: the pyramid represents the situation in one given moment without including the perspective of change. There are actors whose disappearance or radical transformation would simply be indispensable in a peacebuilding process, because they are neither peace-related nor legitimate. This dynamic element is lacking and makes the pyramid too static.

The Challenge of Making Peacebuilding Principles Concrete

A third point emerging from my own experience on the ground in Colombia is that the principles on which the volume are based — such as solidarity, preferred option of the poor, subsidiarity or dignity — may seem transparent but are in fact subject to radically different interpretations. Given this fact, it would be useful to try to illustrate the application of these principles to post-conflict societies through concrete case studies. This would probably give some orientation and arguments to practitioners who try to establish “just orders” and “just relationships” on the ground. It would also give representatives of the Church a sense of what specific methods they might use to approach the problems of their constituencies, while currently their discourse often remains stuck at the level of abstract principle.


Here, of course, I do not address all the topics explored in this rich volume, nor do I mention every article. This was due to my focus on relating a few of its major insights to my own experience in Colombia.

Briefly, though, I want to underscore that the theological chapters by Kenneth R. Himes and Lisa Sowle Cahill are of immense value, because they demonstrate the power and depth of Catholic theology and social teaching for dealing with “real-world” problems. This is of particular importance in a time when the Catholic Church is often accused of being backward or a totalitarian, self-centered organization that abuses children.

I also read with interest the chapters on inter-religious peacebuilding in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. As a student of political science and international relations I was intrigued by the effort to develop a ius post bellum that orients peacebuilding activities. These reflections are especially important when humanitarian interventions for the sake of human rights or the Responsibility to Protect principle are followed by reconstruction efforts focused on stability and nation-building, but not on community-centered peacebuilding.

So, then, does Catholic peacebuilding as described in this book have the potential to meet the challenges of protracted violent conflicts in the real world?

The answer is a clear yes. Institutionally, the Catholic Church, together with partner organizations, covers a vast range of levels and spheres; it has members on every side; and it usually possesses the material and immaterial resources to build bridges and effectively accompany communities on their difficult journeys from conflict to peace.

In contrast to the state, vehicles of international cooperation, and political parties, the Church usually remains even when crisis erupts and often serves as source of hope for the people. Theologically, it draws on a variety of sources that orient the concept of a just peace, thus rejecting a merely security-oriented peace. Therefore, the Catholic Church has a huge potential for peacebuilding in its various forms.

However, the Church also has several shortcomings that limit its effectiveness as a peacebuilder. First, its very authoritarian decision-making processes arguably run counter to its emphasis on human dignity and rights. This applies not only to theological matters, but is a recurrent problem when the clergy feel that their position automatically provides them with a higher knowledge in peace-related matters. Second, the tendency to view conflict through the lens of a reflexive normative preference for harmony is sometimes an impediment to sober analysis. Third, Church-related organizations tend to be male-dominated, reflecting the absence of women in the formal ecclesiastical hierarchy. This tends to deprive peacebuilding-activities of important human resources. Fourth, it seems that in some seminaries future priests are not trained to concern themselves with the world’s tangible problems or to think systematically about them. Sometimes it is astonishing that well educated and highly sophisticated members of the clergy lack basic tools for analyzing the living conditions of the members of their parish or the state of the dynamics of the societies and systems in which they live. It seems that a new wave of aggiornamento would be useful.

Yet this volume is a major step forward. It contributes to a proper engagement with these and other issues surrounding the Church’s role in peacebuilding. The process that led to this volume was very involved and very demanding. It was also very organic, in that the volume was a natural outgrowth of meetings of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network — meetings that took place in different locales all around the world. The sheer global breadth of the network that incubated this volume’s reflections is one more factor that makes this project so exciting. And so catholic.

Christian Wlaschütz
Christian Wlaschütz holds an MA in political science from the University of Vienna, Austria and one in international relations from Syracuse University. He worked three years as a political advisor to the Development and Peace Program of the Magdalena Medio region, formerly known as the EU-Peace Laboratory. The Archdiocese of Vienna financed his work. In June 2011 he returned to Colombia to conduct field research for his Ph.D. in political science on the contribution of transitional justice to peacebuilding. He is currently living in Bogotá.

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