Last April, a number of prominent Catholic scholars and organizations focused on peacemaking (including my fellow “Mennonite Catholic” Gerald Schlabach) gathered at the Vatican for a conference on “the Catholic Church’s history of and commitment to nonviolence” (which has become the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative). The phrasing is key: while some may portray the conference’s call for the Catholic Church to “recommit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence”, whether favorably or unfavorably, as a hoped-for break with tradition, magisterial reexamination of the subject is in fact not at all unprecedented.
On the subject of violence in any form, the starting point in Catholic Social Teaching is the presumption against taking life. Any concession to violence, in other words, always bears the burden of proof. Furthermore, chronological study of the major social documents reveals a trajectory on which the exceptions granted to the presumption against taking life become gradually but increasingly narrowed.
It would be naïve to attribute this to some sort of inevitable progression of human enlightenment; indeed it may be partly attributable to something rather the opposite: accelerated technological advances in the means and methods of violence unchecked by any corresponding moral ones. Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, particularly in its 5th chapter, made exactly this point:
The horror and perversity of war is immensely magnified by the addition of scientific weapons. For acts of war involving these weapons can inflict massive and indiscriminate destruction, thus going far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense. Indeed, if the kind of instruments which can now be found in the armories of the great nations were to be employed to their fullest, an almost total and altogether reciprocal slaughter of each side by the other would follow, not to mention the widespread devastation that would take place in the world and the deadly after effects that would be spawned by the use of weapons of this kind.
All these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude.
(Gaudium et spes 80)
Other translations speak of undertaking “a completely fresh reappraisal of war”, which is the rendition used by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops citing the above passage in their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (par. 66). Introducing the letter, which draws strongly on the teachings of the Council and of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, the bishops struck a similarly urgent tone:
In the words of the Holy Father [John Paul II], we need a “moral about-face.” The whole world must summon the moral courage and technical means to say no to nuclear conflict; no to weapons of mass destruction; no to an arms race which robs the poor and the vulnerable; and no to the moral danger of a nuclear age which places before humankind indefensible choices of constant terror or surrender. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus. The content and context of our peacemaking is set not by some political agenda or ideological program, but by the teaching of his Church.
Paradoxically perhaps, even by stressing the need for a certain kind of “about-face” in the world at large, the bishops touched on a profound continuity, acknowledging both the need for a continuation of the trajectory taken by modern Catholic Social Teaching, and also that it is part of a tradition that extends back much farther: “The Catholic tradition on war and peace is a long and complex one, reaching from the Sermon on the Mount to the statements of Pope John Paul II” (par. 7). We can now add as well the statements of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
I still recall being particularly struck by the latter’s statement in a 2013 Angelus message that “the true strength of the Christian is the power of truth and love, which leads to the renunciation of all violence. Faith and violence are incompatible.” Granted, I wouldn’t want to feed misconceptions related to creeping infallibility, or the hyper-sensationalism of today’s sound-bite culture, by playing this up as a dramatic doctrinal proclamation of some kind. Nevertheless, it can serve as a beacon pointing toward the full circle to which the Church’s peacemaking tradition must lead.
As a more notable step on that road, the Holy Father has dedicated his message for this year’s World Day of Peace to the cultivation of nonviolence, on every scale from the personal to the global. Like Gaudium et spes and The Challenge of Peace, this message too contains both urgency and continuity. Reiterating his frequent and anguished theme of a “piecemeal” world war, Pope Francis pleads,
Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world. At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all (par. 2).
He goes on to say, in a paragraph mostly quoting Benedict XVI, who in turn was reaching back to the very gospel itself:
To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence. As my predecessor Benedict XVI observed, that teaching “is realistic because it takes into account that in the world there is too much violence, too much injustice, and therefore that this situation cannot be overcome except by countering it with more love, with more goodness. This ‘more’ comes from God”. He went on to stress that: “For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behaviour but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone. Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution’”. The Gospel command to love your enemies (cf. Lk 6:27) “is rightly considered the magna carta of Christian nonviolence. It does not consist in succumbing to evil…, but in responding to evil with good (cf. Rom 12:17-21), and thereby breaking the chain of injustice” (par. 3).
It remains to be seen where the Church’s long and complex trajectory of nonviolence will next lead her, and if and when this may include a fuller and more authoritative treatment of the subject, specifically in the form of an encyclical, as the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative hopes. In any case, “the centrality of Gospel nonviolence” to which they call their Church to recommit more unreservedly is really the way she is already committed to walking, taken to its logical and moral end. A visibly definitive commitment to that end would be a step no more radical – and also no less radical – than the gospel has always been.