Cardinal Turkson: Papal encyclical on nonviolence, just war theory 'plausible'

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The head of the Vatican's office for peace and justice issues has said it is "plausible" that Pope Francis may write a new encyclical letter focused on reorienting the Catholic church's teachings on violence, following a period of dialogue and debate on the matter.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, added that a proposal made for the writing of such an encyclical by a first-of-its-kind Vatican conference earlier in the month is "very legitimate."

Turkson was speaking in an interview with Britain's The Sunday Times newspaper following the conference, which was co-hosted by his council and the global Catholic peace group Pax Christi International.

Some 80 participants from around the world taking part in the three-day Rome event issued an appeal at the end of their event April 14, bluntly rejecting the Catholic church's long-held teachings on just war theory.

The participants said the teachings have too often been used to justify violent conflicts, calling on the global church to reconsider Jesus' teachings on nonviolence and on Francis to write an encyclical or some other "major teaching document" on the matter.

Just war theory is a tradition that uses a series of criteria to evaluate whether use of violence can be considered morally justifiable. First referred to by fourth-century bishop St. Augustine of Hippo, it was later articulated in depth by 13th-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and is today outlined by four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church.

A number of theologians have criticized continued use of the theory in modern times, saying that both the powerful capabilities of modern weapons and evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns make it outdated.

Turkson -- whose office helped draft Laudato Si’, Francis’ 2015 encyclical on environmental issues -- says in his interview that the conference "made a clear appeal."

"I hope the debate on these issues, now as pressing as ever, will continue," says the cardinal.

"Too often the 'just war theory' has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war, and it can undermine efforts to develop alternative capacities and tools for conflict to be overcome and transformed,” says Turkson. "Repeatedly, participants who lived in areas of conflict said, 'We are tired of war.'"

"Pax Christi's proposal is very legitimate," the cardinal continues. "In the worldwide Catholic network, it is an important voice among many."

"Pope Francis is working for collegiality, following the teaching of Vatican Council II," Turkson says. "It will be of utmost importance to initiate a broad, open, qualified, deeply felt and widespread debate. A possible encyclical is plausible only as the fruit of much dialogue, not as a starting point."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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