Earlier this year, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International gathered with others in Rome to consider the Catholic Church’s approach to peace and invite the Church to deepen its commitment to the Gospel of nonviolence. Although just war theory was not the focus of the Rome conference, the most controversial aspect of the group’s final statement suggests that the Catholic Church should “no longer use or teach ‘just war theory.’”
As someone who teaches peace in the Catholic social tradition, I have been following the debate and considering the implications for my courses. And as someone who wrestles with the Christian mandate to promote peace in a culture marked by violence, I have been reflecting on this conversation as an opportunity to respond to the signs of the times.
There is widespread consensus among Catholic social ethicists that just war theory has been misused and needs to be revised in light of contemporary contexts. There is also a shared concern that few people have taken up the Church’s challenge to develop a spirituality and virtuous practice around peacemaking. But experts in Catholic social thought are divided on how to interpret the relationship between just war and nonviolence in Catholic social teaching and whether or not just war theory is compatible with Jesus’s nonviolent example.
Lisa Cahill, who participated in the Rome conference, points to the paradox that exists in recent papal teaching on peace. She offers examples of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis using “absolutist language” to condemn violence while at the same time permitting the limited use of force. How should Catholics experience this tension? In the Challenge of Peace the US bishops frame it eschatologically, “Christians are called to live the tension between the vision of the reign of God and its concrete realization in history.” While this might make sense theologically, it does not resolve the tension Cahill identifies. The question of how the Church as a whole and how individual Christians are called to witness to peace is subject to debate.
Some scholars of Catholicism defend the merits of the just war tradition. The problem with the Rome conference, according to Mark Allman and Tobias Winright is that it fails to take into account the limitations of nonviolence to protect the innocent. Similarly Roger Bergman cautions against rejecting just war theory as a resource for resolving international conflicts, where nonviolence has yet to be proven as an effective model. Allman and Winright argue that the conference overemphasized the papal shift away from just war theory in Catholic social thought while at the same time failing to highlight important developments in just war theory. They point to Bernard Prusak’s evaluation of contemporary approaches to just war theory. Prusak will present his research at the upcoming Lane Center event Catholic Perspectives on Peace, Just War Theory and the Power of Nonviolence.
In conversation with Prusak, Eli McCarthy will speak on his experience at the Rome conference and lift up the Catholic approach to nonviolence and just peace. For McCarthy, the Gospel mandate to embrace nonviolence should be reflected by the Church as a whole, not just by individual pacifists. He assumes, following examples of effective nonviolence, that the Church can embrace its responsibility to protect the innocent and promote justice without the use of force. Even if the principles of just war theory still have a place in international law, McCarthy contends that the Church should be a voice of nonviolence, conflict resolution, and healing.
We don’t have to look far to consider the significance of this conversation. The visual saturation of violence in the media—from cell phone videos capturing police brutality against people of color to images of Syrian children pulled from the wreckage of the latest airstrike—should compel us all to look wherever we can for resources to promote peace. As people informed by Catholic social thought lift up the tensions and insights of this tradition, it is an exciting time to enter the conversation.