Christian non-violence and the Catholic social tradition.

When 2011 began many of us could hardly have anticipated the tidal wave of popular uprisings throughout North Africa and the Middle East. It is amazing to observe the domino effect of these popular movements and the lasting repercussion they will have within the regional balance of power. However the current Libyan situation has brought on a violent civil conflict and once again our nation and many others are engaging in military interventions which brings us towards the brink of yet another war campaign. Recently I offered a brief post that offers the just war criteria of the Catholic Church  in order to provide a context for evaluating the military intervention into Libya. With this post I would like to offer a reflection on the Catholic social teaching on peace and non-violence so that we can consider the wisdom of our social tradition on this issue.          

In offering a critique on the 1983 U.S. Bishop’s pastoral “The Challenge of Peace” former Passionist moral theologian Paul Wadell tells us that “A Christianity that no longer seems strange to us is a Christianity that has lost its nerve.[i]” Professor Wadell was very much impressed with the Bishop’s depiction of the non-violent Christ in Scripture and their acknowledgement of our call to follow the radical example set by Jesus. But then he is perplexed by what he considers the weak invitation by the Church to subscribe pacifism as merely an individual option of choice. Informed by his own Passionist spirituality where he meditates on the amazing non-violent response of the crucified Christ Professor Wadell suggest that discipleship does not simply invites us to consider the non-violent option but rather it obliges us to adopt this countercultural social stance:

Pacifism is a Christian’s obligation because discipleship is a Christian’s vocation. To refuse to be a pacifist is a sign that in a world torn apart by the violence of war we no longer believe God’s story can be told.[ii]

While I respect and agree with Professor Wadell’s critique I still admire the overall Catholic position on pursuing peace and limiting violence through the just war criteria. Vatican II set the tone for this development with the Pastoral Constitution “Gaudium Et Spes” when after assessing modern warfare, especially within the nuclear age, it declared that “all these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude.”[iii] It was with this document that while offering some general principles for avoiding war that it praised the non-violent response of others.

Motivated by this same spirit, we cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too. (#78)[iv]

When the U.S. Bishops developed this peace tradition with the 1983 Peace Pastoral they described the theological principle at the heart of the Christian debate between active non-violence and the just war tradition. It boils down to an issue of discipleship based on Christian eschatology. Christ preached the coming of the Kingdom of God and in preaching its emergence Jesus himself would go back and forth in describing it as already present in what he is doing but awaiting its full emergence at some point in the imminent future. So while we are invited to be disciples of the Christ that we know through the history of our faith we are also awaiting the final revelation of Christ and his Kingdom in what we call the “Second Coming.” This is called the “already, not yet” dilemma of the Kingdom of God where we are invited to live like Christ as citizens of the Kingdom while acknowledging the ongoing presence of sin in our world and being forced to address the social realities of injustice and violence in a world that has not yet reached this state of perfection. This theological dilemma is at the heart of the Bishop’s Peace Pastoral whereby they praise the individual pursuit of radical discipleship while on the social level offer a just war approach that curtail the devastation of war especially on its effect on the civilian population. Nevertheless, in light of this tension, it is worthy to note the praise that the Pastoral offers non-violent activist in calling their witness that which “best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and to justice.”[v]

In the midst of this theological tension the Church appears to be offering a more prophetic stand that further critiques the possibility of a just war within our modern era while supporting non-violent actions and throwing its support on humanitarian intervention rather than war. In his treatment on the Catholic peace movement Marvin Krier Mich suggests that the Church is indeed moving further in this direction.

As the Catholic tradition continues to follow the advice of Vatican II – to have its moral reflection more clearly rooted in the Bible and be Christ-centered – I believe we will see a shift in the church’s understanding of pacifism. The official teaching is finding it harder and harder to justify war in the modern era. This means that the tradition of nonviolence will be recovered and receive greater emphasis in the future. The Catholic tradition is still working on this question.[vi]  

Krier Mich’s assessment on the Catholic peace position seems to be quite justified when taken into consideration with the emphasis on peace from our current pontiff. I for one was impressed with the reason that Pope Benedict XVI gave for choosing his Papal name in his very first World Day of Peace message.

The very name Benedict, which I chose on the day of my election to the Chair of Peter, is a sign of my personal commitment to peace. In taking this name, I wanted to evoke both the Patron Saint of Europe, who inspired a civilization of peace on the whole continent, and Pope Benedict XV, who condemned the First World War as a ”useless slaughter” and worked for a universal acknowledgment of the lofty demands of peace.[vii]

Pope Benedict XVI has struggle hard to emphasize one’s personal commitment to follow what he calls the “Gospel of Peace.” This invitation is again primarily offered at the individual level while offering broad social critiques on violent conflicts and supporting disarmament and development strategies. While it is of course imperative for us to push the pacifist and non-violent tradition as a point of personal conversion we still do not have a social mechanism for the international community to employ a broad based non-violent strategy for real local conflicts such as we have currently in Libya. Recently I offered a post that reflected on the “Spiral of Violence” theory by Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil where he suggests that non-violence is not only an excellent moral position but that it is also a rational position for bringing to an effective halt the tendency of retaliating and counter-retaliating. I would think that the Christian community would do well to invest in a social mechanism that could offer a strategic non-violent option as part of an overall humanitarian intervention that is more consistent with Christian discipleship.     

The Christian Peacemaker Teams  is an organization that coordinates non-violent accompaniment to civilians who are either persecuted, marginalized or in the midst of conflict. This organization and this strategy of accompaniment would appear to me to offer a valuable non-violent option to humanitarian intervention in a place like Libya. At the very least it would be a good place to start contemplating this social response.


[i] Paul Wadell, “Pacifism: A Christian Option?” in Biblical and Theological Reflections on “The Challenge of Peace,” ed. John T. Pawlikowski, OSM and Donald Senior, CP (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazer, Inc. 1984), 90.

[ii] Ibid., 106

[iv] Ibid., par. 78

[v] United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, Par. 78, http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/TheChallengeofPeace.pdf

[vi] Marvin L. Krier Mich, Catholic Social Teaching and Movements, (Mystic, CT. Twenty-Third Publications, 1998), 287-288

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About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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