Peace is one leg of the tripod of Pope Francis’ Franciscan agenda: the Poor, Creation and Peace. Already he has made headway in turning the church toward the poor: removing the “Bishop of Bling,” inspiring others to move out of their palatial residences and instructing religious to use their excess properties in service of the poor. He is rumored to be drafting an encyclical on the environment. As to peacemaking, his day of prayer for Syria proved a factor in averting an ill-advised U.S. attack on Syrian chemical weapons. In both the Syrian crisis and in the turmoil over Ukraine he has made decisive use of the Vatican diplomatic corps. But does he have a vision of peace, a program that can meet this world’s needs?
The answer lies in Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation “Joy of the Gospel.” There he has offered a distinctive vision of peace as “reconciled diversity.” Ultimately, it presents a bright vision of the human family, like the church, celebrating “the beauty of its varied face” (No. 116). In the context of our fractious contemporary world, his theology of peace offers an approach to two very different challenges to peace in our time. The first is ethnic and religious conflicts. The second is the encounter, or alternately the clash, of civilizations.
Since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the principal source of armed conflicts has been ethnic and religious rivalries. Most U.N. peacekeeping missions are employed in coping with such conflicts in places like Mali, Darfur and Kosovo. Eliza Griswold has described the 10th Parallel South as the conflict-burdened fault line between Christianity and Islam. Interreligious hostilities like those in Nigeria or the Central African Republic are a symptom of a deteriorating world order. In Iraq, Pakistan and Syria, Sunni and Shi’a fall on one another, re-enacting ancient religious rivalries.
Of course, the pope cannot offer much directly to affect relations between Muslim sects, but he does offer a hopeful approach for enhancing relations between Christians of different backgrounds, and in that way affecting changes in other zones of tension. His affirmation of cultural diversity as the source of the church’s “genuine catholicity” offers opportunities for engagement with the Orthodox, but also with the Catholic Church’s own too little regarded Eastern Churches. These could influence relations among the Balkan states and between Russia and Ukraine for the better.
Peace through reconciled diversity also opens the possibility for improving the condition of the Oriental, especially the Arabic-speaking, churches of the Middle East and North Africa by recognizing their common heritage with their Muslim neighbors and their distinctive theological traditions. By modeling peacemaking through ecumenism and the cultivation of diversity within the Catholic Church itself, Pope Francis will advance the cause of peace by demonstrating how to live in reconciled diversity.
Many local churches, like those in the Philippines where the Catholic leaders in dialogue with members of the Muslim minority, are already engaged in this kind of peacemaking, in some cases with the help of the U.S.-based Catholic Peacebuilding Network. In others, the pope’s initiatives would serve as a model for the local church.
The second dimension of peace within diversity is found in civilizational dialogue. Vatican diplomacy has sometimes given a cold shoulder to this kind of dialogue carried out under the U.N. umbrella because it not only skirted churches and other religious institutions, but because it has sometimes been a front for varied schemes for government control of religion. Francis’ belief that no one culture is a privileged carrier of the Gospel and that every culture enriches the way the Gospel is “preached, understood and lived” gives an opportunity to reconsider the Vatican’s reluctant posture toward civilizational dialogue, for the sake of evangelization, but also for the sake of peace.
China has been a particular advocate of civilizational dialogue, seeking to find an alternative basis for standard international relations. It seeks to project itself as “a civilizational state” and to receive acceptance from the United States and other world powers for the values which perdure through Chinese history. Thus, a dialogue on values is the way in which China seeks recognition of the dignity of its distinctive culture, which was rejected by Rome in the Chinese Rites Controversy and subverted by 19th-century European missionary and commercial imperialism.
Francis’ vision of a peaceful world as “a polyhedron” (think of a soccer ball), where each culture, while in relationship to other cultures and the whole, retains its unique characteristics, opens the way to civilizational dialogue in the interest of peace and, one would hope, eventually of Chinese evangelization of China as well.
Civilizational dialogue is not without its difficulties. In Francis’ mind, “diversity of cultures” applies to religious minorities like Tibetan Buddhists as well as to today’s China. Some observers claim in the Chinese mind, the term “civilization” applies only to China, so that no other people are its equal. For the church, however, civilizational dialogue offers the opportunity to return to the time before the Chinese Rites Controversy when the Jesuit mission had success because it recognized the dignity and worth of Chinese culture.
For China, the 16th- and 17th-century Jesuit mission still stands as a model of encounter with the West. The graves of the early Jesuit missionaries are guarded and maintained to this day as a tribute to the achievement of that encounter. That the newfound respect for other cultures comes from a Jesuit pope cannot have escaped Chinese analysts. Especially when peace is built from interpersonal dialogue, as Pope Francis models it, neither theoretical nor practical blockages will permanently block the path to peace. For genuine openness in dialogue will lead to mutual esteem, and mutual esteem to peace.
Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs. This essay is adapted from a presentation for a conference sponsored by the Center, March 28, on the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”