Francis encourages Vatican just war conference to revitalize tools of non-violence

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has called on the participants of a first-of-its-kind Vatican conference reevaluating the Catholic church’s teachings on just war theory to reflect on how to enliven and strengthen the role of active non-violence in the face of aggression or conflict.

In a letter to an event aimed at developing a new moral framework that rejects ethical justifications for war, the pontiff states that “humanity needs to renew all the best available tools to help the men and women of today to fulfill their aspirations for justice and peace."

"Your thoughts on revitalizing the tools of non-violence, and of active non-violence in particular, will be a needed and positive contribution,” writes Francis to the some 80 participants of a conference being co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the global Catholic peace network Pax Christi International.

The conference, being held Monday-Wednesday, has brought experts engaged in global non-violent struggles to Rome to reconsider the just war theory, the centuries-old tradition that uses a series of criteria to evaluate whether use of violence can be considered morally justifiable.

It is being seen as a significant event as it is the first of its kind co-hosted by the Vatican and the international peace group, and comes as the just war theory has been tested in modern times due to the powerful capabilities of modern weapons and evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns in response to unjust aggression.

Francis’ says in his letter, dated April 6, that he is sending his “most cordial greetings” to the group and that their event "takes on a very special character and value" during the Jubilee year of mercy.

"The current circumstances in the world at large and the historical moment in which the conference is taking place ... heighten expectations for the conference,” states the pope.

Mentioning the founding of Pax Christi at the end of the Second World War, Francis says the group’s example shows “it is necessary to bring people together concretely so as to reconcile peoples and groups with opposing ideological positions.”

“It is also necessary to work together for what persons, families, peoples and nations feel is their right, namely, to participate on a social, political and economic level in the goods of the modern world,” he continues.

“The ultimate and most deeply worthy goal of human beings and of the human community is the abolition of war,” states Francis.

“In this vein, we recall that the only explicit condemnation issued by the Second Vatican Council was against war, although the Council recognized that, since war has not been eradicated from the human condition, ‘governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defence once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted,’” he continues.

"As Christians, we also know that it is only by considering our peers as brothers and sisters that we will overcome wars and conflicts,” says Francis. “The Church tirelessly repeats that this is true not merely at an individual level but also at the level of peoples and nations, for it truly regards the International Community as the 'Family of Nations.'”

"We can succeed in overcoming indifference -- but only if, in imitation of the Father, we are able to show mercy,” he states. “Such mercy is so to speak ‘political’ because it is expressed in solidarity, which is the moral and social attitude that responds best to the awareness of the scourges of our time and of the inter-dependence of life at its different levels -- the connections between an individual life, the family, and the local and global community.”

As part of their goals for the conference, organizers state they seek a “new articulation of Catholic teaching on war and peace, including explicit rejection of 'just war' language.”

They state that they want "an alternative ethical framework for engaging acute conflict and atrocities by developing the themes and practices of nonviolent conflict transformation and just peace."

The conference is being organized around four sessions allowing participants to dialogue and share experiences with one another. The four sessions are given the themes: Experiences of Nonviolence, Jesus' Way of Nonviolence, Nonviolence and Just Peace, and Moving Beyond Unending War.

The sessions are taking place behind closed doors, but organizers are hosting several press conferences to speak about the events.

Participants also say they hope to write some sort of document summarizing their discussions.

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

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