Rediscovering Nonviolence in the Vatican

All of the world’s major religions have opposed the taking of human life, but when religions gain political power, the story becomes much more ambivalent, particularly with respect to the acceptance of warfare. Early Christianity expressed a strong commitment to pacifism and opposed Christian participation in war; this shifted once Christianity became the official Church of Rome.  In this article, Michael Nagler looks at how a major reconsideration may be brewing.


Though ignored almost completely, except for a few mentions in the specialized press, an immensely important Vatican conference was held in spring 2016. The subject? Nothing less than a long-overdue reconsideration of ‘just war theory’ that’s been a part of Catholic social teaching for some 1,700 years.

The idea that war can be ‘just’ has been used to legitimize a long line of brutal conflicts since it was first articulated by Hugo Grotius and other jurists in the seventeenth century.  But the essential outlines of this theory had been drawn up long before by Christian thinkers like St. Ambrose, and particularly by St. Augustine, who regarded war of any kind as regrettable—the lesser of two evils that would hopefully be outgrown over time. Unfortunately, it has still to be put behind us.

That’s why the Vatican conference called by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International—a worldwide Catholic peace organization—is potentially so important, especially because it had the enthusiastic backing of Pope Francis. The conference gathered together some 80 participants from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the Americas, representing a broad spectrum of experiences in peace-building and active nonviolence.

At the end of the three-day conference, the group called on the Pope to write an encyclical on nonviolence in order to move the Catholic Church away from the doctrine of ‘just war’ and to embrace a commitment to ‘just peace’—rooting future Vatican policy firmly in nonviolent action, or as the document says, “return the Church to the nonviolence of Jesus.”

To appreciate the significance of this call, some historical context is required. In his overview of Christian Pacifism in History, Geoffrey Nuttall describes successive waves of war rejection that began in the earliest centuries of the Church. Originally, war-fighting was forbidden to Christians (and this was one of the main reasons for their martyrdom), a situation that was reversed in 313 CE when the Emperor Constantine merged the still-new religion with the state. Soon afterwards, only Christians could join the Roman legions.

At repeated intervals throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, however, new waves of groups sprang up who were dedicated to ‘gospel literalism’—taking seriously the core teachings of Jesus as the ‘Prince of Peace.’ While their reasoning varied, the underlying motive of these groups was always a repugnance of war as something no Christian should undertake.

Nuttall’s fifth and last wave came in the form of George Fox and the Society of Friends, more popularly known as the Quakers. As Fox famously said in his epistle of 1658, “Ye are called to peace, therefore follow it…All that pretend to fight for Christ are deceived; for his kingdom is not of this world, therefore his servants do not fight.”

While each of these successive rediscoveries left some kind of residue on human consciousness (along with an enduring institution in the form of the Quaker movement which has some 200,000 followers today), none of them succeeded in returning the mainstream of Christian belief or practice to the power of nonviolence. In fact most of them were violently suppressed by the church itself, as in the crusade against the Albigensians in Southern France in the early thirteenth century.

Meanwhile, the practice of war did not stand still. Imagine how far wars have advanced in the last 1,700 years, if ‘advanced’ is the word to describe a tremendous increase in brutality and dehumanization. I’m thinking of the incredible weaponry that has been invented to kill more people, more ‘efficiently;’ the metamorphosis of war-fighting from formal battlefields to closely-packed villages and cities so that civilian casualties have increased to 80 per cent or more; and the deliberate suppression of humane sensibilities among the military. US forces began to do this at the time of the Korean War when they realized that only around 15 per cent of soldiers actually fire their weapons in combat.

What the British navy accomplished by giving rum to their recruits before sending them into battle, the modern military has achieved far more effectively by giving video games to the rank and file. As a result, the great majority of soldiers do now fire their weapons in combat, which takes a devastating toll on the human spirit and leads to a rapid rise in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and soaring rates of suicide among veterans.

While violence has ‘advanced’ in all these ways, the just war theory has remained intact in official Vatican thinking, despite periodic advocacy from the laity and the inclusion of peace as a key element in at least two papal encyclicals. There has also been pressure from some Catholic bishops—for example in “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” a pastoral letter written in the context of the nuclear arms race in 1983.

But now things are changing. This is partly because so many recent wars—perhaps most  notoriously the war in Iraq which began in 1993—have been undertaken for reasons that are plainly false, their real rationale hidden behind a screen of lies. This is a position that is expressly forbidden by just war doctrine. But underneath the realization that ‘just wars’ are anything but, something much deeper is going on: a slow growth in awareness that the deepest aspirations of humankind are oriented towards community not conquest.

Against this background the recent Vatican conference takes on considerable significance. For almost the first time in history, senior figures in and around the Catholic Church are talking openly, not only about the absence of war but about the presence of an alternative, a position reflected in the appeal that was issued by participants for the Vatican to “re-commit to the centrality of gospel nonviolence.”

Both Pope Francis and the conference organizers referred to the “tools of nonviolence” as a way out of war—not simply as a pious phrase but as a fully-worked alternative approach—demonstrated by the work of conference participants like Mel Duncan. Duncan is a founding director of Nonviolent Peaceforce, which is a leading member of the global network of organizations that carry out ‘unarmed civilian peacekeeping.’

The Peaceforce now supports around 200 well-trained field team members who provide peacekeeping services using strictly nonviolent means—things like heading off local conflicts, rescuing child soldiers, protecting communities, and brokering peace agreements like the one that was recently signed in Mindañao in the Philippines. In 2016 this work was cited in high level reports from the United Nations and in the recommendations of the annual report of C-34, the committee of countries who supply troops for UN peacekeeping operations. At least one national government (the Dutch) has given the Peaceforce a substantial multi-year grant for protecting women and children in South Sudan.

There’s a saying in India that a palm frond is so strong that ten men could not pull it off the tree, but when a new frond appears the old one drops off by itself. Nonviolence is that new frond. As it becomes better known and its capacities more broadly recognized, the institution of war—which is seemingly so well-entrenched—is bound to loosen its hold.

So in one sense, the Vatican conference is another crie de coeur of humanity, very much in the spirit of Nuttall’s five waves of Christian pacifism. José Henríquez, a member of the planning committee and a recent Secretary General of Pax Christi International, reflected this connection in the organizers’ pre-conference press release when he said, “We need to go back to the sources of our faith and rediscover the nonviolence which is at the heart of the Gospel.”

But in another sense things just might be different. Last spring’s conference is one signifier among many that a sixth wave is being launched. Let’s make this one the last.

Michael N. Nagler is Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, California.

This article, slightly edited here, was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can read the original by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. We encourage you to take a look at this wonderful resource. All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.

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