Thursday, 29 December 2011

2012: A Time for a Prophetic Peace?

The following article by me has been published in the latest edition of The Tablet (31 December 2011), under the title 'Unconscionable and Unjustifiable'.

The year 2012 is likely to be a time of growing insecurity and risk in Europe. It also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, an event which still divides the Church between conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and reformers – although such labels fail to communicate the many nuanced positions that Catholics hold with regard to the meaning of the Council. Pope Benedict XVI has called for a hermeneutic of continuity which interprets the Council in the light of tradition and resists any attempt to portray it in more revolutionary terms.

Wherever one stands in this debate, it is true that some issues were more controversial than others during the Council sessions. Some of the issues that have most divided the post conciliar Church – contraception and homosexuality, for example – barely featured in the Council’s debates. Yet there was one question on which the Council marked a decisive shift in Church teaching which has received widespread support among many ordinary Catholics. That is the shift away from just war theory towards an almost exclusive emphasis on the imperative to find non-violent forms of conflict resolution through the authority of international law.

Gaudium et Spes includes a guarded acknowledgement that, in the absence of effective international authority, ‘governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defence, once all peace efforts have failed’. The rejection of war cannot therefore be interpreted as absolute, but it does seem as if the just war doctrine is gradually being abandoned in favour of a more pacifist ethos. Time and again since the Council popes and bishops have spoken out against war. In 1983 the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference published a pastoral letter called The Challenge of Peace, which is still widely regarded as a landmark document for its condemnation of the arms race, its caution regarding nuclear deterrence, and its insistence that just war theory must begin with a ‘presumption against war’. Pope John Paul II described war as ‘a defeat for humanity’,  and he referred to the ‘absurd and always unfair phenomenon of war, on whose stage of death and pain only remains standing the negotiating table that could and should have prevented it.’ The opposition to war among Catholics today has the power to unite us despite our many disagreements on other issues. Only an influential but small minority of Catholics – many aligned with the American Republican Party – remains robustly committed to defending the just war doctrine. A decisive shift to a pacifist Church would be a radical way in which Benedict could make good his commitment to emulate Benedict XV, whom he described in his first general audience as ‘a true and courageous prophet of peace who struggled strenuously and bravely, first to avoid the drama of war and then to limit its terrible consequences.’ This gains added urgency in the light of current events.

Economic crises in Europe have time and again resulted in nationalism, revolutionary violence, war and various forms of totalitarianism. The earnest endeavours of European politicians to find a solution to the Euro crisis have been led by nations which experienced the catastrophic effects of war most directly in the twentieth century –perhaps that is why it was David Cameron and not Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy who was able to turn his back and walk away. German and French politicians know that they have everything to lose if Europe fails. Benedict’s papacy so far has been characterised by his passionate commitment to the preservation of European identity rooted in a shared sense of Christian values. The present crisis may be a moment of opportunity for him to mark the anniversary of the Council and affirm his commitment to Europe by ensuring that never again will the Catholic Church sanction and support the wars that have been such a part of Europe’s history – wars in which the Catholic Church has always been deeply and messily embroiled.

To move from just war theory to pacifism would not be to judge and condemn the wars of the past, but to ask what our generation must do to safeguard the future. Pacifists are often challenged by those who ask whether or not we think it was right to fight against Hitler. At that time there were many Christians who, recognizing the threat posed by Nazism, reluctantly abandoned their commitment to pacifism. But if we go on justifying war by looking backwards rather than forwards, then paradoxically we hand the victory to the aggressors. We commit ourselves to war without end and so we remain trapped in a spiral of violence, creating the conditions of economic deprivation, social trauma and displacement which war produces, and which become a fertile breeding ground for new tyrants, violent ideologies and yet more wars.

The nature of warfare changed in the twentieth century, not only because of the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction but because modern military technology poses an unprecedented threat to civilian populations. In 2001, the International Red Cross estimated that, since the middle of the twentieth century, an estimated ten civilians have died for every soldier, whereas at the beginning of the last century nearly ninety percent of war deaths were combatants. For all the military newspeak about ‘smart bombs’ and ‘surgical strikes’, modern warfare unleashes indiscriminate slaughter on those caught up in its wake, and leaves many thousands of others bereaved and orphaned, homeless and exiled. The enduring shame of the Iraq war is intensified by the knowledge that the British and American governments refused to count the number of Iraqi dead. Moreover, the war industry is driven by corporate interests, including the arms trade and the growing use of private security firms to mop up the mess that remains when the western nations have dropped their bombs in the name of democracy and freedom. No humanitarian can afford to support war today, least of all those who believe in a God who accepted torture and death as the price to be paid for refusing to meet violence with violence  - a God who holds out the promise of peace for those who are willing to follow his way.

For the Church to enshrine its emergent doctrine of non-violence at the heart of its practice as well as its teaching would be difficult but not impossible. For example, Catholic schools would have a significant role to play, both in peace education and in denying access to the military for the purposes of recruitment. Such schools could ensure that children were never presented with combatant roles in the armed forces as a career choice. To say this is not to suggest that Catholics should withdraw from their civic and political responsibilities into some utopian spiritual ghetto. It is simply to say that a Catholic’s loyalty to his or her country cannot include being willing to kill for that country, even if it might include a range of other non-combatant roles in the armed services. 

Similarly, Catholics already employed as soldiers could be encouraged to seek alternative employment or non-combatant roles if possible, but this would necessarily be a gradual phasing out process. The same would be true for those employed in the arms manufacturing industries, so that gradually over one or two generations we might see a global transformation in Catholic ethics and politics.
Would Catholics still carry arms, fight wars and behave violently towards one another? Of course they would, for the gap between the Church’s moral teachings and the lives and practices of ordinary Catholics would remain as wide as it always has been. But a rejection of the just war doctrine would mean that, as the shadows once more lengthen across the European continent, Catholic bishops and popes would never again be in the business of signing concordats, taking sides and declaring their nations’ wars to be just even as Catholic citizens butchered one another. It would mean that to be in good faith with the Church a Catholic would have to resist all forms of violence and killing, rediscovering with St Martin of Tours that a soldier of Christ cannot fight in the wars of men.

That would be a hermeneutics of continuity, expressing the vision of the early Church through the life and practice of the postconciliar Church of the twenty first century. It would also ensure that the name of Benedict did indeed come to signify a prophet of peace amidst the crises and wars of Europe.


  1. Amen. Thank you for this timely article. As a Catholic I was 'forced' (and empowered) by my conscience to draw the same conclusions. You might be interested in my personal journey in this regard that can be found at

  2. @Peter QueenanPeter, I read your blog and found it very interesting, particularly having spent most of my early life in southern Africa (Zambia and Zimbabwe) as a near neighbour to South Africa. I've posted the link to your blog on my Facebook site as well as here, and I hope people will take time to read it.

    Best wishes,


Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.