Choosing Peace: The Catholic Church Returns to Gospel Nonviolence

Editor: Marie Dennis
ISBN: 978-1-62698-270-3
Date: 2018
Price: £20.99
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Publisher: Orbis books

Recently the world has marked the centenary of the end of the First World War. While this has been marked in many ways it is easy to overlook the fact that partly because of it and Pope Benedict XV’s courageous and isolated opposition to it, Catholic teaching about war and peace has changed substantially in the last century. St John XXIII and successors, together with the Second Vatican Council, were crucial in this development; but it is becoming clear that Pope Francis is helping the Church to move towards a more complete rejection of violence. To this end a conference was organised in the Vatican in April 2016 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International. Following it in his 2017 World Peace Day message the Holy Father wrote ‘To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence... I pledge the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace though active and creative nonviolence…Every such step, however modest, helps to build a world free of violence, the first step towards justice and peace.’


Many of the papers from that conference have now been published in Choosing Peace: The Catholic Church Returns to Gospel Nonviolence, edited by one of the co-presidents of Pax Christi International, Marie Dennis. The papers illustrate how the grass-roots Catholic peace movement has helped the Church – participants came from all over the world and brought to the conference direct experiences of how in many parts of the world Catholics and others have rejected violence – not only seeking peaceful means of settling disputes but also protesting against militarism. An example of the latter would be actions to protest against the construction of the Gangjeong Naval base on the island of Jeju in South Korea (outlined by the Columban priest Patrick Cunningham, pp. 45ff.) Specific examples of this kind give the papers in this collection a lot of authority: the shifts in teaching are not being driven by the pope and some bishops, but by ordinary Catholics, often risking their lives of freedom.

What attracted public attention at the conference was its Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence, as a conclusion summarising the conference’s work. In the United States the National Catholic Reporter reported the appeal with this headline: ‘Landmark Vatican Council rejects just war theory, asks for encyclical on nonviolence.’ (14 April 2016). This was correct – the appeal did call on Pope Francis to issue an encyclical (the 2017 World Peace Day message is hopefully a step in this direction) and does call on the Church to ‘no longer use or teach “just war theory”’ (p.202) It should be borne in mind that the appeal is directed by participants to the Vatican; it was not endorsed by the official Vatican body which helped to sponsor the conference. For many this call was the most significant step taken by those present. What is striking is that not all those present at the conference were absolute pacifists: ‘Many were not; they had experience of active nonviolence but understood the legitimacy of some form of defence and the urgency of protection because they live in very dangerous circumstances’ (p. 203) – and yet there was a consensus that the traditional Just War doctrine has to go. This conviction, for example, drew on reflections about Catholics fighting on both sides of the civil conflict in Columbia. While it is possible to use the Just War doctrine correctly to rule out modern wars in almost all circumstances (it is clear that this is the case, for example, with regard to the Second Gulf War; it would also be true retrospectively in relation to the First World War) the conference participants asserted that more often it has been used to justify wars and promote the Church’s endorsement and benediction of specific wars.

Those of us who have used the Just War tradition correctly to condemn contemporary conflicts have to admit that this is correct; indeed the tradition is also often misunderstood. The extent to which it has been ignored when it has tried to restrict or rule out the moral legitimacy of a conflict, even by committed Catholics, is still a major problem. If the proportionality argument means that a modern war can hardly ever be justified, does that mean that the doctrine or theory works, or that it is obsolete? It remains to be seen whether the Holy Father, assuming that there will be an encyclical on peace will be written, will endorse this categorical rejection of the Just War tradition; but the opening up of the issue by the conference and these papers is opportune, and this collection is an excellent resource. The worsening militarism promoted by the United States, the Russian Federation, China and many other countries shows how serious the crisis is which faces the world and the Church. Moreover in Britain there is still a reluctance in the local church to address the issue. This collection of papers deserves to be widely disseminated.

Ashley Beck
St Mary’s University, Twickenham

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