Harnessing the power of faith to eliminate nuclear weapons

by Marie Dennis
Pax Christi International Co-President

In November 2017 during a private audience with participants in a Vatican symposium on nuclear disarmament, Pope Francis definitively condemned the “very possession” of nuclear weapons. Panelists during the Vatican conference, which brought together members of the Catholic hierarchy, diplomats, politicians, civil society leaders, religious communities, students, theologians, and other Catholic leaders, repeatedly called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen said it clearly: “We should cease to imagine nuclear weapons as tools for us to manage, but rather as a curse we must banish.”

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, captured the determined atmosphere of the gathering. Humans, she said, “harnessed the power of science to build these weapons; we have harnessed the power of faith to stop them.”

But does the opinion of the Catholic Church—even of Pope Francis—have any impact on public opinion or shift attitudes among world leaders toward nuclear disarmament?

That depends.

Those already concerned about a growing threat from continued reliance on and proliferation of nuclear weapons paid very close attention to Pope Francis’ definitive statement in November 2017. They had done the same in December 2014 when the Holy See shifted from a strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence toward the outright condemnation of nuclear weapons in its important contribution, “Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition,” at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.

The Holy See subsequently played a very important role in negotiations for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Faith-based communities and other religious institutions did likewise during both the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) and the ban treaty negotiations. They observed the negotiations, made interventions, held side events and prayer vigils, met with government delegations, sent messages to their governments encouraging them to participate, and educated the public about the importance of the treaty. On September 20, 2017 the Holy See was one of the first states to sign and ratify the treaty, and religious groups have remained central to getting 60 countries (thus far) to sign and 14 to ratify…

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* Photo from
Nonviolence, Peace Spirituality

When bishops said ‘yes’ to war, Ben Salmon said ‘no’

by James Dearie, National Catholic Reporter

Clad in oversized goggles, with grotesque face coverings under otherworldly gasmasks, soldiers in the trenches of the First World War seemed fully mechanized, fully dehumanized, in their attempt to survive the world’s first employment of chemical warfare on a large scale.  The industrial revolution, and the technology that it ushered in, had finally been turned from their original home in industry, to the art of war itself.

You can see the fear-inspiring uniforms the soldiers wore, along with life-size images of men in them, at the National World War I Memorial and Museum, just a few miles from NCR’s headquarters in Kansas City. In this year, the centennial anniversary of the war’s end, that old technology serves as a ghastly reminder of the ways in which warfare evolved in the 20th century. While World War I changed what war itself could be, it also began a change in how the church, both leadership and laity, thought about war, the United States, and Catholics’ role in both.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XV, who reigned from September of 1914 until his death in early 1922, pled the cause of peace, issuing an encyclical decrying war in November and calling for a Christmas truce in December. As the conflict raged on, he continued calling for an end to hostilities and even presented a plan to end the war, although his pronouncements were largely disregarded by the belligerents.

In the U.S., which stayed out of the European conflict until April of 1917, the bishops pledged the support of American Catholics for the war effort as soon as it was underway.

“Moved to the very depths of our hearts by the stirring appeal of the President of the United States, and by the action of our national Congress, we accept whole-heartedly and unreservedly the decree of that legislative authority proclaiming this country to be in a state of war,” the bishops wrote to President Woodrow Wilson after the declaration of war.

Although the U.S. reaction to the war undermined the papal position at the time, it was hardly unique. “French Catholics saw the war as a chance to unite France; German Catholics (persecuted by the state in the 19th century) participated wholeheartedly,” historian and former dean of the University of Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters John T. McGreevy told NCR.  “And the same was true for Italian, Belgian Catholics etc. This all made it challenging for the Vatican to manage tensions, especially when Benedict XV offered his own peace plan, and was then challenged by the peace plan offered by Woodrow Wilson.”

While many American Catholics shared their bishops’ sentiments and served in the war wholeheartedly, some did not.  One example was Denver resident Ben Salmon, who refused to go to Europe after being drafted in 1917. Despite the pronouncements of the leadership of his church, Salmon cited his religious convictions in a letter to the president, stating, “The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is unconditional and inexorable … When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.”

At the time, it seemed that there may be “no space for someone like Ben Salmon in the Catholic Church,” Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International told NCR. “While in other traditions … there was an agreed upon root for a conscientious objector. That simply didn’t exist in the Catholic Church.”

The church had long relied on the Just War Theory to determine the morality of participation in such conflict, “which had been useful but didn’t stretch the thinking very much beyond that, which was very notable in the United States,” Dennis added…

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Nonviolence, Peace, Peace Spirituality

Active Nonviolence: rediscovering a central teaching of Jesus

By Tony Magliano

“But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

“To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you” (see Luke 6: 27-35).

Do we really take Jesus seriously here?

His first followers certainly did.

Christian literature from the first three centuries affirms that the earliest followers of Jesus Christ completely rejected all forms of violence and bloodshed – no abortion, no euthanasia, no capital punishment, no war.

But this drastically changed when Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., making Catholic Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. This marriage of church and state swung open the doors for Christian participation in the military of the Roman Empire. And sadly, Christians have been fighting for empires ever since. But not every Christian…

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Review: “Choosing Peace,” by Marie Dennis

choosingpeacebookA review of “Choosing Peace – The Catholic Church Returns to Gospel Nonviolence”, ed. Marie Dennis. Orbis Books, 2018, 270 pages.

Reviewed by Rob Fairmichael in Nonviolent News 

This important book is based on the April 2016 conference “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic understanding of and commitment to nonviolence” which took place in Rome with some eighty participants. Marie Dennis, as a long time activist and co-president of Pax Christi international, is well placed to ‘pull it all together’, and
that she does, in a book which includes contributions at and for the Rome conference, and other reflections on the topic. While of most interest to Catholics and other Christians, some parts may be of considerable interest to other people as well.

You might say that when thinking of Christianity and nonviolence, the Catholic Church is not the church which comes foremost to mind. However a listing of some notable figures, particularly in a chapter on “Catholic Practice of Nonviolence” (p.125) by Ken Butigan and John Dear, made me think a bit more deeply. And with this 2016 conference 14
and the Pax Christi International ‘Catholic Nonviolence Initiative’, and Pope Francis being well disposed to nonviolence, well who knows what the future may bring.

The basic argument behind it all is that the church should cease to think in terms of ‘Just War’ but rather of ‘Just Peace’ (p.168) and the principles that should go with that. An apposite quote from Pope Francis, used in a few different places in the book, is that the current international situation is “world war in installments”. The conference did
make “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence” – and its analysis of the early Christian church practice in relation to violence and nonviolence is well covered, starting with Terrence J. Rynne on the scriptural evidence from the life and teaching of Jesus.

One of those attending and contributing to the Rome conference was Mairead Maguire, whose reflections afterwards appear at Part of what she said at the Rome conference includes, “I would like to see Pope Francis and the Catholic Church call for the total abolition of militarism (an aberration/dysfunction in
human history.) Also for Pope Francis and the Church to renounce war and develop a ‘Theology of Nonkilling and Nonviolence’ and reject the ‘Just War’ Theology which has, and continues to lead people to an acceptance of militarism and war as an alleged legitimate ways of solving conflict.”

Although obviously well disposed to nonviolence, exactly where Pope Francis does stand is not as yet clear, though there is some analysis in the book, and the call from the conference is, “We propose that the Catholic Church develop and consider shifting to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence. 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.” (p. 25)

‘Loving your enemies’ is a very clear Christian message which many Christians have done amazing wonders and somersaults to avoid…you would think Jesus spoke about ‘loving to hate your enemies’! The book is interspersed with the stories of Catholic and other Christian activists and one reflection on ‘loving your enemies’ which comes across
very strongly is that of Katarina Kruhonja, a cofounder of the Centre for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights in Osijek and her thoughts on the violence that engulfed her in 1991 in Croatia. She decided “that killing my enemy is surely not how Jesus would love his enemy. So I chose to love my enemy as Jesus would. I didn’t know what that
would mean, but the choice itself really was my Passover from the logic of violence.” (p. 44)

There are plenty of strong stories from a variety of violent situations around the world. One other brilliant quote for Christians is from Gandhi: reading The Sermon on the Mount “made him admire Jesus as the ‘Prince of Satyagrahis’ (practitioners of nonviolence), a person of creative, nonviolent action.” (used by Terrence Rynne on p. 87).

I would consider the book a well balanced mix of theory/theology, practice and analysis and a very useful resource on Christianity and nonviolence in general, but essential for those with a concern for the Catholic Church’s stand on the matter, and hopefully a harbinger of greater things to come.
“Choosing Peace” is available via the publisher and agents or by mail from Pax Christi UK at (UK price about £20 plus postage).

The Catholic Nonviolence Initiative website is at including the papers prepared for the 2016 Rome conference.

An INNATE interview with Marie Dennis in 2012 about the work of Pax Christi International appears at Her photo, taken at the same time as the interview, is at


Nonviolence – the heart of the gospel

by Marie Dennis, Co-President of Pax Christi International

(Ed. Note: The following was given as a speech in Montreal, Canada, in June 2017. It is also available in French by clicking here.)

Katarina Kruhonja, co-founder of the Center for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights in Osijek, recipient of the Right Livelihood Award and a former Board member of Pax Christi International, spoke eloquently about her own conversion to nonviolence:

For us ordinary people the war in Croatia, the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia came suddenly, unexpectedly. We were confused and the war, the logic of war, was spreading like wild fire. The growth of nationalism and enemy-making and the armed attacks were overwhelming. I found myself surrounded by Serbian forces who were bombing us. I started to think like everyone else that there was no other way. It is or them or us. What we can do? And while we were praying in a small group, we thought and talked about what love your enemies might mean in this very concrete situation. Someone said maybe the love for enemy in this situation is to kill him or them, to prevent him or them from committing more atrocities. That hit me very hard. I started to think every day what would it be to love my enemy in the middle of the war? I couldn’t find an answer, but I made a decision. I said that killing my enemy is surely not how Jesus would love his enemy. So I chose to love my enemy as Jesus would. I didn’t know what that would mean, but the choice itself really was my Passover from the logic of the violence. I would be able to live again.

Faith grounds and shapes the work of Pax Christi for peace. As we accompany communities torn apart by violence and work to prevent or to stop war, and on and on, the challenge of faith to our work is rooted in an absolute commitment to preserving every human life and the integrity of the rest of creation – the essence of Catholic social thought.

For us and for many others nonviolence is spirituality, a way of life, a deep commitment to live the values we believe shaped the community that formed around Jesus in the first century context of occupied Palestine. For us, the so-called “hard sayings” in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are central. But the challenge is how to interpret that message in the context of a 21st century world immersed in extremely complex situations of violence. What does “love your enemy” or “blessed are the peacemakers” mean now – yes, at a personal level, but maybe even more importantly, what does this worldview offer in the public arena, the social context those places where we live our faith? …

Click here to read the entire speech as a PDF.

Peace, Women and Peacemaking

Vatican’s nuclear disarmament conference emphasizes shift toward logic of peace

by Marie Dennis
Co-President, Pax Christi International

Shortly after participants in the recent Vatican symposium on nuclear disarmament heard Pope Francis definitively condemn the “very possession” of nuclear weapons, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy said: “The church is in the midst of a fundamental reappraisal of how to balance the Christian obligation to nonviolence with the need to resist evil in the world.”

Speaking on a panel about the role of the church in promoting integral disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons, he continued: “The church must be a voice in the world constantly pointing humanity toward the path of nonviolence and the logic of peace. Too often, we acquiesce in the tolerance of weapons, threats and war, concluding that the logic of war can at least hold evil at bay. But ultimately, it is the logic of war which, once unleashed, invites evil into the core of our world, our nation, [and] our hearts.”

The church’s clear rejection of nuclear weapons may well be the cutting edge of a groundbreaking shift in Catholic dialogue with the world on issues of war and peace, calling us collectively to conversion, as McElroy said, from “reliance on weapons of war to the construction of weapons of peace. … The power of nonviolence, once relegated to the category of romantic idealism, has emerged as a potent force for social transformation and the building of lasting peace.”…

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