By Fr. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International
Catholic social teaching provides a critical framework from where to search values and norms and to contribute to justice, peace and care for the creation. The social ideas of the Church, which have developed over decades, offer an almost inexhaustible richness of points of reference for peace work. Especially concerning the four most prominent (international) areas of attention: peace/security, human rights, development and climate. Within the broader political framework, international law and especially international humanitarian law are applicable.
Catholic social teaching has the dignity of each individual as its point of departure. Each person is unique. Moreover, life in solidarity is people’s calling. Solidarity refers mostly to taking responsibility together for each person’s dignity, whatever his/her identity and so-called social status. Catholic social thought is universal in nature. Transnational problems will ask for transnational answers, especially in these times of globalisation.
Serving the common good
Living in solidarity entails striving for the common good, or the ‘bonum commune’, together. Society should develop in harmony with every person and his/her environment, and to everybody’s content. Solidarity calls for tangible acts. It is time for action. Every person deserves help, especially in situations of war or other need, such as people on the run.
As a human being, one inevitably lives in the company of others, both locally and globally. Society belongs to everyone and people thus live in a participatory manner. The social fabric in which people live has both local and international characteristics. That social fabric should be, or is, the medium for life in peace and harmony with other people and our surroundings.
Options for the poor and weakest
People are part of different social networks: family, upbringing, culture, religion, career, etc. The (shared) responsibility for social/public life lies with people themselves in the first place.
This kind of thinking requires making choices regularly. It requires prioritising the most weak and the poorest and simultaneously it requires redistribution of wealth. A social safety net should take up the delicate. It is not possible to live in freedom without there being some form of social protection.
Globalisation often results in inequality between countries and societies. It is necessary to eliminate large inequalities between people and between populations. We must develop the earth and her society in a responsible way as much as possible. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a frame of reference for this as well.
It is worth mentioning at least two religious documents here. First, there is the 1963 Pacem in Terris – or Peace on earth. This encyclical is the Magna Carta of the global Christian peace movement. An orderly society can live in peace by respecting and striving for/realising four key concepts: truth, justice, love and freedom. The role of an international world order, in this case organised or guaranteed by the UN, is of great importance in the prevention, control and settlement of (armed) conflicts. The increasing number of threats with weapons of mass destruction can for instance not last forever. A nuclear would automatically entail collective suicide.
The 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio – Progress of the people(s) – gave a strong impulse to the importance of development cooperation. Development became the new name for peace. Social justice has international dimensions. There is no such thing as a non-binding task to continue battling for a just community of people. Development and justice are primary conditions for populations to live in peace. The social question is an international issue.
Christians are mediators by stimulating dialogue and contact and by working inclusively: each person is part of society. Dialogue is aimed at the advancement of justice, peace, brotherhood and human dignity. Particularly in times of tension and conflict, openness and dialogue with others can contribute to a better society. In order to come closer to another, we must first listen to the other. This listening is accompanied by humility and entails that the other can question you. No human being is worth more than another is, people are equal.
Drawing from spiritual roots
Christians should continuously inspire and encourage each other to safeguard human dignity, both in human growth and in human suffering and dying. Reciprocal love shall be humanity’s culture.
This requires continuous nourishment and ‘resourcing’, looking for and giving purpose, also from a Biblical tradition. The gospel asks us to regularly test and explain the signs of the time. What is currently taking place in the world and what is its deeper meaning? Forever daring to ask the question: what is our society today like and what must be done to communally turn all people in that society into better people.
The never-ending effort of people to live together with others and to form a true society means that one person’s good life contributes to someone else’s good life too. Helping one another is essential to this process. Among other things, it is about care, well-being, charity, compassion, solidarity and assistance toward each other.
Sometimes it goes beyond that and one has the duty to help people in need, also ‘unknown people’ in need. This then often leads to dilemmas: where lie the boundaries of human or individual responsibility and where begins the state’s responsibility? Dilemmas are not negative or threatening, rather they make life interesting.
Reconciliation is our key concept
A key task of the Christian peace movement is the restoration of broken relations. This reconciliatory work must take place on all levels: individually, within the own family and society and between population groups, nations and religions. Reconciliation is only possible when the various parties acknowledge fault (and are ashamed of past mistakes), ask for, and receive forgiveness. Injustice remains injustice and that is something we should point out. Fault is something we must acknowledge and confess to. We shall respect and return everyone’s dignity. It comes to down to a willingness to start over again. Willingness to reconciliation is a turning point.
A certain measure of empathy is needed to imagine someone else’s pain, hurt and mistakes. This is a reciprocal process. Reconciliation is not possible without having first put yourself in another’s shoes. In times of crisis, it is also a matter of learning from and living with changes. Change is mostly generated by and in technology.
Peace work needs public space
The purpose of peace work and the role of civil society are of essential importance in an open democracy. Every citizen has the right – or even obligation – to ask critical questions in order to make a constructive contribution to the improvement of society. That is why citizens ask the political realm to protect human dignity through the advancement of human rights. An open or authentic democracy has human dignity as its point of departure, as well as respect for human rights and concern for general well-being. People and the political community especially have the duty to protect fellow human beings and to prevent disaster, misfortune and conflicts.
Living truthfully is of essential importance to an authentic democracy. Free press and freedom of speech are therefore important to find truth and to take good decisions based on that truth.
In the end, people should be true to their conscience in all their acts. That means that no one can be forced to act in opposition to his/her conscience, especially not in religious affairs. However, in the sphere of war and peace too must there be space for scruples. We shall thus have to continuously shape our conscience. People should always have the freedom to doubt, to think things over, to hear different opinions or to find new directions.
Living in a communal home
People are a fundamental part of the earth – the Creation – as the ‘communal home’ in which all creatures have a place. Ecological issues such as polluted rivers and oceans, air pollution or global warming are increasingly playing out internationally and politically. Climate change has become the most important international issue. These issues concern the direct living conditions of people and have, among other things, bearing on working conditions, fair salaries, working with clean paint materials and non-toxic pesticides.
People’s desire for ever more consumption goods is the underlying source of this spiritual crisis. The message is thus to carefully handle the earth’s sources. It is a matter of enjoying the ‘enough’. A possible eighth work of mercy is the care for climate, the care for our communal home, the earth.
Most people tend to think they are the centre of the world and that their culture is the cornerstone of human history. Related to this, we can establish that we are living in an ‘identity moment’, in other words, the own ‘I’ in all its forms – like culture, skin colour, language and philosophy of life – comes first. Most people have no eye for anything expect their own freedom! It is difficult to do the opposite: to first choose on behalf of someone else and then on my own behalf!
Emotions dominate both our personal lives and geopolitics. When thinking of ‘emotions’ we mostly think about compassion, love and empathy. Nevertheless, during conflicts and times of war emotions gain different content: terror, fear, hate and cruelty. Religions, or rather religious people, are often manipulated in the process. Let us be clear: holy wars do not exist. Only peace is holy. No war, no form of violence can be justified in God’s name. God serves no nation. God stands above every nation and each population group. Peace is every individual’s ultimate dream. Peace is God’s ultimate dream for all people.
Working on peace is every person’s duty
In our peace work, we are not only addressing Catholics, but also other Christians. Ecumenical cooperation means: serving the world together. We also address people of other religions or philosophies. Working on peace is our communal task.
Building peace is not solely something done for and through ‘professionals’. Working on peace is everyone’s responsibility. Peace is every person’s calling. That is why we ask ‘all people of good intention’ to cooperate. The communal frame is the need for a peaceful and just life. Every person and population group has the right to peace and security. I am sure, convinced, that I will only feel safe and well when others share that feeling. Christian peace work offers a platform where people can meet, can communicate and, importantly, can eliminate potential disagreements.
It is a virtue to bring people together. A good society is characterised by a fruitful tension between space for difference and the search for a common factor. The political community is thus at the service of the human community. That requires social pluralism, so diversity of general good can show to its full advantage.
The peace sector not only needs many professionals, it also needs many that continue to live from a necessary indignation to seek and give meaning in life.
 In this reflection I do not refer directly to the many ecclesiastical documents that apply here.