Global Currents article

From Just War to Just Peace?

Since its inception in the late nineteenth century, Catholic social teaching (CST) has aimed to communicate its normative ideals of human dignity and the common good to and within the modern, secular nation-state, and its pluralistic citizenry. As A. Rashied Omar has noted on this blog (here and here), Pope Francis goes further in explicitly seeking alliances across religious traditions, and even an interreligious spirituality, for the good of the earth, global society, and especially the poor. Francis ends his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’, with two prayers, one for Christians and one for all believers in a Creator God. The first-ever encyclical to be issued with a You Tube video illustrating its key themes in affecting visual, musical, and poetic images, Laudato Si actually begins to instantiate cross-cultural action for change.

The exclusion of religion from the public sphere—in the interest of subduing religious nationalism and violence—is often regarded as a hallmark of modernity. Yet Omar sees in the writings and example of Pope Francis a call for Muslims and Catholics to engage in “deeper encounter and embrace in the theological, social, and spiritual realms.” Together, he believes, Islam and Christianity, with other indigenous and world religions, can uncover the roots of violence and make political progress toward “a truly humanistic and compassionate world.”

In April, 2016, the Catholic Church took another step toward this goal, with a conference in Rome on “Nonviolence and Just Peace,” co-sponsored by Pax Christi International and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Nine members of the Council were present at the meeting, including its head, Cardinal Peter Turkson. The stated aim of the conference was to displace just war theory by advocating a just peace framework for transforming conflicts by nonviolent means. At the theoretical level, the just peace framework would subject conflict resolution to criteria such as human security and the common good, and positive peace defined not merely by the absence of violence, but through the presence of restorative justice, rule of law, and participatory decision-making, both horizontally and vertically. At the practical level, just peace would involve conflict-transforming practices such as direct nonviolent action, diplomatic initiatives, interreligious political organization in civil society, unarmed civilian peacekeeping, public rituals of repentance, and initiatives of reconciliation.

These proposals reflect the conviction of Catholic activist organizations such as the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, sponsored by Notre Dame and the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, as well as of the Congressionally funded United States Institute of Peace, that religion and religious traditions can counter violent extremism; build solidarity against ideological, ethnic, and religious divisions; and inspire theologies, politics, and practices of just peace.

A high proportion of participants in the Rome conference were from areas undergoing violent conflict and social devastation: Gulu in Northern Uganda, Iraq, South Sudan, Colombia, Mexico, Croatia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Palestine. Several expressed vehement objections to the very concept of a “just war,” saying that war only aids and abets the perpetration of more violence, giving those who have the might to cause violence the tools to rationalize it as also morally right. Many of these participants shared stories and personal experiences of situations in which courageous, faith-based action had successfully mitigated violence and mediated peace agreements.

The concluding document of the conference (which represents a general consensus of attendees, and does not have the official endorsement of the Pope or Vatican) urged that priority be given to the Catholic commitment to nonviolence, to the promotion of just peace theory, and—much more controversially—to the elimination and prohibition of any Catholic validation of just war theory whatsoever, whether in pastoral documents, scholarship, or teaching. This includes humanitarian intervention. In the United States, unfortunately, this last provision has led to a disproportionate focus by media and theologians on the merits (or lack thereof) of just war theory. Rather, in my view, the focus should be on active, widespread, interreligious, grassroots-to-global peacebuilding as a political agenda of the Catholic Church in which others are invited to join.

In fact, just war theory has been in decline among popes and in teaching documents since the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all repeated virtually verbatim Paul VI’s declaration, “No more war! War never again!” While all these popes reserve a place for humanitarian intervention, they have been extremely reluctant to concede that any actual and specific use of force is or was justified. To the contrary, they insist that violence is not an instrument of justice. Catholic social teaching and social ethics is clearly moving further from just war theory as traditionally understood, and closer to pacifism. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, limited and rare uses of violent force have not been absolutely repudiated. In his message to the Rome conference, Pope Francis called for the revitalization of tools of active nonviolence and the transformation of violence through peacemaking initiatives, but also cited Gaudium et spes to the effect that governments have a right to legitimate defense.

Attention should be centered on the many accounts of successful peacebuilding strategies provided at the conference, by the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and other faith-based organizations, and by the USIP and the United Nations. Social scientists Maria Stephan and Erika Chenoweth argue that nonviolent resistance is twice as successful as armed revolt, producing resolutions that are much less likely to devolve into renewed violence (Why Civil Resistance Works, 2011). Whether or not one approves rare and stringently specified uses of violent force to protect democratic institutions and human security, all Catholics, and counterparts in other traditions, should prioritize practical initiatives to transform conflicts and expand just peace.

Jesus’ gospel of compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and grateful love of God and neighbor is about creating communities of love, justice and solidarity in which violence is not even conceivable because the joy and peace of divine presence inspire and transform all relationships. Ecclesial and political action in this spirit—peacebuilding—should unite all Christians, define the social ethics of the Roman Catholic Church, and serve as a unifying force for interreligious progress toward a more peaceful world.

Photo by Los Angeles Catholic Worker


Lisa Sowle Cahill
Lisa Sowle Cahill is the J. Donald Monan, S.J., Professor of Theology and Ethics at Boston College. She received her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Society of Christian Ethics, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her works include Global Justice, Christology and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2013), Theological Bioethics: Justice, Participation, and Change (Georgetown, 2005), Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 1996); and Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory (Fortress, 1994, now being revised). She serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Religious Ethics and the international journal Concilium.

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