For too many years, perhaps even centuries, nonviolence and active peacemaking were addenda to the life of the Catholic community, carried out on the fringes and often in the face of nationalistic fervor demanding war.
Most countries of the industrialized West -- what some would call Christendom -- have known periods of enormous conflict, state-sponsored violence capable of destroying whole civilizations, obliterating cities, killing millions and invariably increasing the possibilities of even greater destruction in the future.
Rarely have Catholic leaders within those countries raised their voices in opposition. Even at the apex of the Cold War, at a time when the nuclear weapons threat was at its highest, it took months, and excruciating rounds of negotiations, for the U.S. bishops to come to a point of agreement on a rather measured statement on war and peace.
Against that backdrop, the recent Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference at the Vatican, a first of its kind, marked a long-overdue new level of engagement by church leadership with the questions of war and peace and the adequacy of the just war theory to the circumstances of the 21st century.
Especially heartening is the news that Pope Francis welcomed the conference and its challenge to the church, and he may weigh in himself in a future document.
As remarkable as the moment appears -- with its call for a rejection of just war theory and its replacement with "a new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence" -- it was but one more step along a long and difficult path.
As enthusiastically as we embrace the moment and its possibilities, a necessary caution arises, a caution against imitating a top-down hierarchical approach that pretends to have all of the answers in hand to these demanding issues. There is a temptation -- and we've given in to it at times on these pages -- to see the conversion from a just war disposition to an active peacemaking disposition as something easily imagined and done.
There is the activist equivalent to a meme that goes something like this: Christians were all nonviolent and long-suffering until A.D. 313 and Constantine's Edict of Milan, which then turned all Christians into agents of the state willing to fight for the empire. There is, of course, an element of truth in that simple version, but it does its own violence to the complexities of history, Christian and otherwise. It's a bit like the hollow reading of U.S. history that says we were once a Christian nation that has turned secularist and godless.
The reality is complex, as reflected in the remarks of Marie Dennis, an American who serves as a co-president of Pax Christi International, a sponsor of the conference. In an interview with NCR, she said the participants "believe that it is time for the church to speak another word into the global reality. When we look at the reality of war, when we look at the teachings of Jesus, we're asking what is the responsibility of the church," she continued. "And it is, we believe, a responsibility to promote nonviolence."
The hard part is contained in another of her statements: "The question is how."
Anyone conversant with the history of Catholic peacemakers in the United States understands that even the most ardent and eloquent among them, agreeing in principle, debated the tactics. So there was tension among, for instance, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day over strategies for expressing opposition to war, over what constitutes nonviolent action, to what degree of confrontation with the state the heart of the Gospel summons us.
These are not light issues to which there are breezy answers. The community needs to be wary of those ready to throw over the tradition wholesale for the siren call of some imagined utopia.
A much deeper work is required in resetting course -- and one that is far more countercultural than anything the church in the United States has yet undertaken. It will take far more than persuasion of the leadership of the church. It will require conversion of heart at the level of parish pastors and people in the pews.
In this regard, theologian Terrence Rynne's observation in Jesus Christ Peacemaker: A New Theology of Peace appears to be a call to action suited to the moment.
"The challenge from here," he writes, "will be to energize and equip members of the church at the grass roots to see themselves as peacemakers, to read the Gospels with fresh eyes and to discover Jesus' clear call to nonviolent peacemaking, to tell one another the great stories of successful nonviolent action and to make every parish a cockpit of active nonviolent peacemaking."
Such a transformation of imagination will require solid teaching and witness. In the United States, it will mean a confrontation with established presumptions about what it means to be a Christian citizen in a culture awash in military images and one that spends more than most of the rest of the developed world combined on its war-making capacity.
It is encouraging that the topic has been engaged in a new way at the highest levels of the church. Our hope is that the people of God will also consider this new view of peacemaking and nonviolence as essential to their lives as Catholic Christians.