If you want peace, work for justice.
– Pope Paul VI
The first instance of violence recorded in the bible is the murder of Abel by his own brother Cain (Genesis 4:8). People who use violence to oppress people have hearts full of envy, anger, greed, pride, lust, sloth, or gluttony. Unfortunately, when those who have been wronged decide to retaliate, the cycle of violence continues. Jesus spoke clearly about loving others, whether friend or enemy. Although outspoken in his criticism of injustice, he went willingly to his own death, his followers forbidden from raising a sword to protect him.
The Catholic Nonviolent Tradition
In the nonviolent tradition, followers of Jesus are called to live as he did. Jesus allied himself with the poor, the sick, the outcast and spoke courageously against injustice. He did not use power or weapons to bring about the revolutionary kingdom he described where all would live with justice. Rather, he allowed himself to be humiliated and hung on a cross like a criminal, trusting that God would work through human events to transform the earth.
The Catholic peace movement traces its roots to the earliest Christian communities. Members of the early Christian communities did not serve in the military because of the prohibition of killing and the requirement to swear allegiance to the emperor considered divine. This began to change when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and imposed Christianity as the state religion. By 425, Emperor Theodosius required all members of the military to be Christian; hence, the Catholic Church has not been one of the traditional peace churches.
The Catholic Worker Movement in the 20th century, the teaching of Pope John XXIII, and opposition to the Vietnam War were catalysts for a growing trend towards pacifism within the Church. The Second Vatican Council, and later, the U.S. Catholic bishops in The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response legitimized nonviolence as an appropriate stance for individual Catholics to take and affirmed the right of Catholics to declare themselves conscientious objectors.
Nonviolence is not passive nor does it accept injustice or violence. It often involves courageous confrontation and resistance to those who misuse power. Those who promote nonviolence believe that violence only begets violence. It is also believed that only in actively working for justice and peaceful solutions before the brink of war is reached will alternative solutions to violent conflict be found.
Catholic Social Teaching
“We must join with Pope John Paul II to proclaim, with all the conviction of my faith in Christ and with an awareness of my mission, that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy.. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity.”
“Fundamentally, our society needs a moral revolution to replace a culture of violence with a renewed ethic of justice, responsibility, and community”- Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action, U.S. Catholic Bishops
Just War Theory
Only after the age of persecution, when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and imposed Christianity upon the Roman Empire as the state religion, did Christians begin to deal with the dilemma of participation in civil society on a level that might mean military service. Two early Christian philosophers, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, put limits on acceptable uses of war by Christians by articulating what has come to be known as the Just War Theory. This theory brings together two conflicting notions; that violence against another is wrong, and that it is an imperfect world where force may be necessary to protect innocent and vulnerable people and preserve order.
Catholic social teaching accepts the right of a country to defend itself when all attempts at peacemaking have failed. Once peacemaking efforts have failed, the Just War Theory puts limitations on the waging of war. A war is permissible when:
- there is a just cause (protection of innocent life and human rights, preservation of conditions for decent human life)
- it has been declared by a competent authority (elected government leader) as a last resort
- there is a strong probability of success, and it is expected that the damage done by the war is proportionate to the expected good.
In light of the potential for destruction in an age of nuclear and chemical weapons, it is unlikely that all of these criteria can be met. In practice, while the just war theory attempts to limit the use of force, governments sometimes use it to justify the use of force. Countries seldom look for solutions to their differences like negotiation, and compromise, before those differences have escalated to violence. By the time the crisis escalates to violence, there may seem to be no alternative but to respond with violence. The overriding presumption, however, must always be against war and in favor of peace.
Any form of violence offends the God-given dignity of both the victim and the perpetrator. However, the Church accepts that in our imperfect world there may be times when the greater good is served by using violence as a means to defend the innocent or restore order.