Shifting the lens: Just peace and nonviolence

by Eli McCarthy

[NOTE: The following article was published this past August on the Huffington Post.]

Disheartening trends of global violence continue with the latest attacks in Iraq, Germany, and France, including the direct taking of a Catholic priest’s life. The lens we use to respond to these violent habits, especially as a Catholic Church is of utmost importance for both better effectiveness and faithfulness.

As a grateful participant in the April conference in Rome on just peace and nonviolence, I previously wrote about being deeply moved by the encounter with fellow Catholic peacemakers who lived in violent conflict zones. Out of this experience, I want to respond to this interview in Our Sunday Visitor about the conference outcome document. The person interviewed was a respected colleague, Dr. Gerard Powers, professor of the Practice of Catholic Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame.

I, and the Conference, appreciate and agree with Gerard on the following points: Catholic life needs to better integrate peacebuilding; there is value in a just peace theory; just war theory is unfortunately being used primarily in an unhealthy way; and the significant value of a new Papal document on this issue. So, hopefully there is a lot of common ground to work on together.

There are four other points of divergence, which I want to address with the hope of deepening the dialogue as we seek God’s truth together. These points arise in large part out of an emphasis on the pastoral question about how we better form peacemakers as a Catholic Church.

First, in the interview there is no clear articulation of how Jesus’ way corresponds to the Catholic Church continuing to use and teach the just war theory. This is not a minor point. Yes, the Catholic Church uses both scripture and tradition, but as we Catholics all know it is an “and” not an “or” relationship. Jesus’ way needs a clear role and any moral teaching needs to have consistency with that way. Scripture scholarship is basically unanimous that Jesus models a way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies. The call to love our neighbor must always be consistent with how Jesus loved (John 13:34), and our perceived enemies always remain our neighbors. Recent Popes have confirmed this reality about Jesus, and the conference builds its’ appeal consistent with this realism about Jesus.

Second, the claim is made that Catholic social doctrine already has a just peace theory. In general, this is a promising point and something we can build on together. The article says that “the vision, principles, criteria for moral action constitute the substance of a just peace theory.” Yet, it’s not clear which criteria are intended here. Is it the just war criteria or something broader? Either way, I agree that Catholic social doctrine certainly has elements of a just peace theory. But Catholic social doctrine has yet to explicitly identify, explain, and prioritize a just peace theory/approach. For instance, the conference alluded to seven specific just peace criteria to guide moral action across all stages of conflict, including during violent conflict. These criteria and this method of application have not yet been affirmed in Catholic social doctrine. There are also specific virtues, such as the virtue of nonviolent peacemaking, which were discussed as part of a virtue-based, just peace approach consistent with Gospel nonviolence. Examples of a similar just peace approach have been articulated by others on lethal drones, nuclear weapons, and ISIS

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