Vatican conference urges church to abandon just war theory

Christian volunteers who have joined Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take part in a training session by coalition forces in Duhok, Iraq, March 16. Five years after the war in Syria began, there is a "feeling of helplessness in front of an endless human tragedy," a Vatican official told the U.N. Human Rights Council. (CNS/Ari Jalal, Reuters)

In John 14:27, on the night before his execution, Jesus said to his disciples, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you." 

Facing a horrible, violent death, Jesus taught the first leaders of his church to respond to violence with peace. The peace of Jesus -- the only real and lasting peace -- unlike the false "peace" of the world which violently conquers enemies, would be based on total nonviolence.

But after 300 years of countless Christians striving to follow the nonviolent Jesus -- often suffering severe persecution -- the faith of the followers of Christ was legalized and later made the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christians then began fighting for the empire. And sadly, Christians have been fighting for empires ever since.

The "just war" theory was developed to offer criteria -- like protecting civilians from attack -- that had to be met before war could be theoretically morally justified and continued. Most unfortunately, this led to the Catholic church's abandonment of total Christ-like nonviolence.

A monumental, first-of-its-kind conference was recently held April 11-13 in Rome, with the purpose of deepening the Catholic church's understanding and commitment to Gospel nonviolence. Conference participants urged that the just war theory be replaced with a Just Peace strategy.

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The Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference, co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International, gathered together an international group of approximately 80 bishops, theologians, priests, sisters and laypersons -- all experienced nonviolent social justice and peace leaders -- to begin to formulate for the Catholic church a Gospel-based, active, nonviolent strategy to counter violence, armed conflict, and war.

One of the attendees, Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International, told me that most of the participants came from countries where war and violent conflict have been the reality for too many years.

Dennis said their message to us over and over again was: "We are tired of war." For the church to promote nonviolence -- to deepen our understanding of and commitment to nonviolence -- seemed obvious and essential, she concluded.

Another attendee, Fr. John Dear, a veteran nonviolent peace educator and activist, said to me there is no such thing as a just war. "Everything has to return to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the nonviolence of Jesus."

He emphasized that Jesus taught us to offer no violent resistance to one who does evil. Dear said "active nonviolence is not passive." He said we need to address the root-causes of war like poverty and exclusion. But instead the just war theory has been used for over 1,700 years to justify many wars and killings.

Another participant, Eli McCarthy, who represented the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, shared with me his amazement regarding stories about Catholic leaders negotiating with very violent armed actors.

He spoke of an archbishop negotiating with the violent Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, and of a Jesuit negotiating with paramilitaries in Columbia.

McCarthy said conference participants were informed about a bishop in warring South Sudan who created a peace village that has the trust of all armed actors. He said he heard that peace education is taught in all the schools in the Philippines, and that there is a university of nonviolence in Lebanon.

We have much to learn from committed Christians who are already successfully replacing a just war theory mentality with a Just Peace strategy.

McCarthy said, "One thing surprised me, and it is instructive. Those [attendees] living in violent conflict zones … were all in support, as far as I could tell, of the Catholic church focusing on nonviolence and Just Peace, and no longer using the just war theory."

The Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference produced a guiding document titled "An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence." I hope many Catholics will prayerfully read it.

At the end of this document there is a call for the Catholic church to:

  • integrate Gospel nonviolence into life - including the sacramental life - and work of the Catholic Church through dioceses, parishes, schools and seminaries;
  • promote strategies of nonviolent resistance, restorative justice and unarmed civilian protection;
  • no longer use or teach the "just war" theory;
  • continue advocating for the abolition of war and nuclear weapons;
  • and there is a request to Pope Francis to write an encyclical letter on nonviolence and Just Peace.

The questions of active nonviolence, the just war theory, and war itself are very personal for me. Over 33 years ago, I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector. While firing an M-16 at pop-up targets, I realized as a follower of the nonviolent Jesus I could not aim a weapon at another human being, pull the trigger, and kill him or her.

While writing this column on peacemaking, the Holy Spirit dropped this Loyola Press 3 Minute Retreat into my inbox. It is mystically titled "On a Peace Mission."

I am glad to share it here with you. 

"On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked … Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them … 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' "

Let us go forth to make peace.

[Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist. He is available to speak at diocesan or parish gatherings about Catholic social teaching. His keynote address, "Advancing the Kingdom of God in the 21st Century," has been well-received by diocesan gatherings from San Clemente, Calif., to Baltimore. His email address is tmag@zoominternet.net.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Tony Magliano's column, "Making a Difference," is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.


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