Blessed are the Peacemakers

Orthodox priests put it on the line in Kiev.

A bit from my book Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life:

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

“It takes three to make a quarrel,” said Chesterton. “There is needed a peacemaker. The full potentialities of human fury cannot be reached until a friend of both parties tactfully intervenes.”[1]

Chesterton was being funny, of course, but he was wisely pointing to a truth as well. It is the truth that keeps so many from being peacemakers—the truth that peacemakers will always be accused of being weenies and wimps by mutually hostile parties. The peacemaker is blessed by God; he is often cursed by man.

All the beatitudes pronounce a blessing on things that unenlightened, natural common sense tells us are not blessed. Being poor when everybody wants to be rich, merciful when everybody is screaming for blood, mournful when everybody wants gladness—calling these things “blessed” is decidedly counterintuitive. And to be a peacemaker—to suggest that the goal is ultimately to will the eternal good of even Osama bin Laden or Adolf Hitler and to love even them—is counterintuitive too.

“Love your enemy” is, in a word, bad for team spirit and unit cohesion and morale in a time of war. So peacemakers tend to get derided as “soft on terror,” or as “counter-Soviet elements,” or as “disloyal to the glorious Japanese Empire,” or as “allied with international Jewry,” or as “un-American,” or as whatever the jargon the dominant regime uses to say, “Peacemakers threaten our ability to gin up violence in the populace against our designated enemy.”

Note, for example, Pope John Paul II’s response to the call for war with Iraq in 2003. John Paul, being a peacemaker, said firmly, “No more war! Never again war!” He sent an envoy—Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi—with a letter to President Bush, who placed it on the table unopened and proceeded to inform the cardinal at some length that war was “God’s will.”

Cardinal Laghi told Bush that three things would happen if the United States went to war, the source recalled. First, it would cause many deaths and injuries on both sides. Secondly, it would result in civil war. And, thirdly, the United States might know how to get into a war, but it would have great difficulty getting out of one.

He told the president that with peace nothing is lost, but with war great turmoil would be created, especially in the Arab world.[2]

Over a hundred thousand dead later—including over fifty thousand civilians—and with a crippled economy, a trillion dollars of debt, the United States transforming itself into a national security state, and the Middle East further from the promised dream of peace and democracy than before our adventure in Iraq began, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Laghi look more prescient every day.

As does then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), who famously responded to an attempt to get his support for that war by saying, “[The] concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”[3] Indeed, the difference between the mentality of a peacemaker and that of the culture of death is illustrated by the attempt to use these words to justify violence as the first rather than the last resort. For recent years have seen the proliferation of a popular meme floating around on the Internet, arguing that the Catechism’s silence on preventive war means such war is therefore morally legitimate!

This is a breathtaking perversion of the Church’s moral tradition. There is, in fact, no room whatsoever for preemptive war in Catholic teaching. This can be plainly seen by the Catechism’s actual teaching on just war:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

- there must be serious prospects of success;

- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good. (CCC, #2309)

The point is this: Just war doctrine has been formulated by the Church, not to give us a trigger mechanism so that we can roll up our sleeves and commence slaughter with a song in our hearts, but in order to make it ashard as possible to go to war. The point of just war doctrine, in other words, is to set up a series of roadblocks to slow down and restrain the human appetite for mayhem, vengeance, murder, and destruction which sinfully yearns for an excuse to be unleashed. The doctrine is formulated in such a way that all the requirements, not just one or two, need to be fulfilled in order for a war to be considered just.

The Church Teaches Peace

The first requirement is that the war must be an act of defense against an actual aggressor, not a preventative act of aggression against somebody you fear might be an aggressor one of these days. Similarly, the second criterion is that war must be a last, not a first, resort. Therefore, preemptive war is necessarily unjust war—because war is not something you “get” to do. War is something you tragically are forced to do as a last resort.

Preemptive war, being neither a response to an actual act of aggression nor a last resort, is itself an act of aggression. It should be as morally desirable to Catholics as would be the thought of amputating your healthy leg because you fear that in five years you might step on a nail and get gangrene. No Catholic should be eager to cut corners on just war doctrine—because war means innocents will die, women will be made widows, and children will be made orphans. That is why Joaquin Navarro-Valls, speaking on behalf of Pope John Paul II at the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003, said, “Those who decide that all peaceful means that international law makes available are exhausted, assume a grave responsibility before God, their conscience and history.”[4]

In short, the argument that the silence of the Catechism on preemptive war speaks in favor of it is like the argument that the silence of the Catechism on the subject of ritual cannibalism means that the Church is in favor of that. The purpose of the Catechism is to tell us murder is wrong, not to play a game of “Simon Peter Says.” The Church is not obliged to laboriously spell out a one-million page list of every conceivable form murder can take.

The concern of the Church is to teach peace, not to find loopholes for war. That is why, before she gets to talking about the last-ditch extremity of war, Holy Church says:

By recalling the commandment, “You shall not kill,” our Lord asked for peace of heart and denounced murderous anger and hatred as immoral.

Anger is a desire for revenge. “To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit,” but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution “to correct vices and maintain justice.” If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin. The Lord says, “Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” (CCC, #2302, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa II-II, 158, 1 ad 3; Matthew 5:22)

Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin when one deliberately wishes him evil. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (CCC, #2303, quoting Matthew 5:44–45)

Respect for and development of human life require peace. Peace is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity. Peace is “the tranquility of order.” Peace is the work of justice and the effect of charity. (CCC, #2304, quoting Augustine, City of God, 19, 13, 1: PL 41, 640)

Earthly peace is the image and fruit of the peace of Christ, the messianic “Prince of Peace.” By the blood of his cross, “in his own person he killed the hostility,” he reconciled men with God and made his Church the sacrament of the unity of the human race and of its union with God. “He is our peace.” He has declared: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” (CCC, #2305, citing Isaiah 9:5; Ephesians 2:16 JB; see Colossians 1:20–22; Ephesians 2:14; Matthew 5:9)

A Place for Pacifists

This frequently ignored and overlooked instruction precedes the material in the Catechism on just war, because war is, in the Church’s understanding, not the “natural state of man” (as certain pagans insist) but a major manifestation of sin. And sin is, for Catholics, normal but not natural. It is Calvinism, not Catholic faith, that says sin and nature are identical. Catholic faith points out the truth that sin does not constitute nature but destroys it. So a philosophy predicated on the assumption that sin is natural is contrary to both nature and grace—and to the Creator and the Redeemer.

So while the Church allows for war when all alternatives to peace have been exhausted, her natural sympathy is with peace as our natural state, since we are created to live in peace. So she has left open a large place at the table for people who genuinely believe that it is always wrong to take up arms. (Indeed, pacifism was the original default stance of the early Church, since Christians could see no point in killing for a pagan Caesar who was persecuting them—a question that may become a living issue again as the postmodern, post-Christian state hardens into enmity against the Church.)

In this openness to both just war and pacifism, the Church basically lives out the counsels of St. Paul in Romans 14, recognizing that some people believe it morally incumbent upon them before God not to fight, just as others believe it morally incumbent upon them to fight. Our task is to not pass judgment and assume too quickly that those who disagree with our preferred approach are either bellicose Mars worshipers or cowardly ninnies. Our tradition honors both the warrior saint Joan of Arc and the pacifist Servant of God Dorothy Day.

The only place the Church draws the line is when either a pacifist or a just warrior tries to insist that anybody who disagrees with him or her is “not really Catholic.” And in a culture where the great majority of Catholics are supporters of just war, it is vital that this majority not speak with contempt for pacifists, since as Holy Church reminds us, they “bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death” (CCC, #2306).

This is nothing new. The psalmist lamented over three thousand years ago,

I am for peace;
but when I speak,
they are for war! (Psalm 120:7).

The Prince of Peace suffered insult when he acted peaceably toward sinners, tax collectors, and occupying Roman troops (see Matthew 8:5-13; 9:10–13). He refused to rain down fire on the Samaritans and to ask his Father for angels to prevent his arrest (Luke 9:51–55; Matthew 26:53). That’s because he was the real Messiah, not the secular messiah that fallen human wisdom is always hoping for. He knew that peacemaking is always a sacrificial act.

That’s worth repeating: Peacemaking, as much as fighting in a just war, is a sacrificial and therefore priestly act. We don’t like that. We much prefer realpolitik where somebody else suffers and dies for a good cause. But our faith is blunt about the ultimate mystery of peacemaking: The Son of God surrendered to crucifixion in order to reconcile the members of warring race with God and with one another and to bring about the only true and lasting peace to be had. As St. Paul says:

You who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Ephesians 2:13–16)

To make peace, therefore, means a sacrifice, since all peace is rooted in the peace of Christ, and the peace of Christ was obtained “by his blood.” Jesus was able to do this because he is the Son of God. When we make peace, whether between nations or between quarreling in-laws or between squabbling teens, we are therefore sharers in his sonship—beloved children of God the Father, with whom he is well pleased.


[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic. Available on line at http://wikilivres.info/wiki/The_Thing/2 as of May 15, 2012.

[2] Gerard O’Connell, “When Bush put John Paul II’s letter on the side table without opening it” Vatican Insider, September 17, 2011. Available on line at http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/homepage/world-news/detail/articolo/guerra-del-golfo-gulf-war-bush-giovanni-paolo-ii-john-paul-i-juan-pablo-ii-8130/ as of May 16, 2012.

[3] “Cardinal Ratzinger Says Unilateral Attack on Iraq Not Justified” (Zenit.org, September 22, 2002). Available on line at http://www.zenit.org/article-5398?l=english as of May 16, 2012.

[4] “Vatican: U.S., backers on Iraq held responsible before God” Catholic New Times, April 6, 2003. Available on line at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0MKY/is_6_27/ai_111012339/ as of May 16, 2012.

  • Jonna

    Lots to reflect on here, thanks.

  • Procopius

    More than that Mark, the monasteries surrounding the area have opened their doors to serve as field hospitals for the sick and injured. I would also add that the Kievian Orthodox Patriarchate has been a step behind the Catholic Patriarchate under the leadership of Patriarch Sviatoslav Schevchuk in supporting these protests. Indeed the Catholics recently recived a threat from the interior ministry for celebrating Mass on the square.


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