Could you endorse the following statement? "The time has come for our Church to be a living witness and to invest far greater human and financial resources in promoting a spirituality and practice of active nonviolence and in forming and training our Catholic communities in effective nonviolent practices."
This statement comes from a final document issued at a historic conference held recently at the Vatican. The "Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence" took place in Rome, from April 11-13. Five bishops and more than 80 lay people, priests, members of religious congregations and theologians traveled from every continent to take part in this landmark gathering.
The conference was organized by Pax Christi International and the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and other major Catholic organizations to consider how the Catholic Church can deepen its understanding of the "centrality of active nonviolence to the vision and mission of Jesus." Many of those gathered had practical experience in peacemaking activities and using alternatives to violence to settle disputes on both large and small scales.
The conference was opened by Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Pontifical Council with a letter of warm greeting from Pope Francis who said, "Your thoughts on revitalizing the tools of nonviolence, and of active nonviolence in particular, will be a needed and positive contribution."
The major focus and message of the conference was to promote the idea of shifting to a "just peace" approach and to move the Church away from its reliance on the theory of "just war." They rightly point out that it has been too often that the "Just War Theory" has been used to "endorse, rather than prevent or limit war."
Recent history, beginning with the second half of the last century, suggests that it may be impossible to wage a just war under the current war-making means and conditions. In addition, each of the popes since St. John XXIII wrote "Pacem in Terris" ("Peace on Earth") has renounced war and violence as a proper means of human relations. Pope Francis in particular has said that, "Faith and violence are incompatible" and has urged the "abolition of war."
This conference could be a turning point in the Church's understanding and practice of active nonviolence. It has been the case that we have not emphasized nearly enough the message of nonviolence in the teaching and ministry of Jesus who "proclaimed a new, nonviolent order rooted in the unconditional love of God." We have not specifically taught or promoted nonviolent practices or strategies, and we have frequently accepted the use of force uncritically. A just peace approach "offers a vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict."
Sadly, the Church recently lost one of its most vocal proponents of peace when Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ, died in early May at the age of 94. Father Berrigan frequently challenged U.S. Catholics to reject war and the use of nuclear weapons. Through his poetry, his writings, and his presentations, Father Berrigan questioned our easy acceptance of violence and war and consistently refocused our attention on the Gospel and the witness of Jesus. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
Perhaps the time has, in fact, come for our Church to move to a teaching of just peace and be a living witness of active nonviolence. As Father Berrigan used to ask frequently, "What does the Gospel demand of us?"
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.