On Peace and War

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is a remarkable summary of Catholic social teaching. Those who were disappointed with the abbreviated treatment of Catholic social thought in the Catechism of the Catholic Church will be delighted with this 446-page overview of church teaching that is integral to the church’s evangelizing mission. Specific topics such as child labor, globalization and preventive war are examined in the light of both biblical and magisterial themes. It is thoroughly refreshing to see the words reconciliation and love used so often in this document. Indeed, the stirring conclusion (read it first!) is entitled For a Civilization of Love. Business people, politicians, military officers, labor leaders, researchers, activists, journalists, teachers and preachers will all find the Compendium a challenging and invaluable resource for their work. Its importance cannot be stressed too much: we have at last an official Catholic social gospel.

I want to highlight briefly some major themes of the Compendium and then offer a few comments on Chapters 9, The International Community, and 11, The Promotion of Peace.Catholic teaching on these matters offers a realistic exit strategy to the problems many sovereign nation states have thus far been unable to solve: war, poverty and denial of human rights. Catholic teaching looks to a time when war will be abolished, when human rights will be universally respected and justice will characterize the relations between states.


A difficult agenda? Indeed. Idealistic? Of course. But the opposite of idealism is not realism, it is pessimism. Pessimism can be a morally crippling philosophy that separates humankind from its past and consequently denies hope for the future. Catholic realism, on the other hand, acknowledges both the peril and the promise of the human condition, but it does not sacrifice the promise to the peril.

The promise, in Catholic social doctrine, is rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Both chapters begin with brief but valuable biblical assertions like: The Christian vision offers a universal vision of the life of men and peoples on earth that makes us realize the unity of the human family (Ch. 9) and Working for peace can never be separated from announcing the Gospel, which is in fact the good news of peace’ (Ch. 11). This biblical perspective is welcome, since so many magisterial documents have historically been strong on philosophy but weak on Scripture.

The International Community

Chapter 9 provides a Christian vision of the international community. The universal common good, in Catholic social teaching, demands that political communities be justly regulated according to the principles of reason, equity, law and negotiation, excluding recourse to violence and war, as well as to forms of discrimination, intimidation and deceit. International law, rather than war or military dominance, is the only effective guarantor of international order. Catholic teaching calls upon nations to reject definitively the idea that justice can be sought through recourse to war.

The creation of an international totally effective juridical authority is at the heart of contemporary Catholic teaching on international affairs. To guard against domination by a superpower, the church insists that the principle of subsidiarity apply to the public authority of the world community. That is, the public authority will neither take the place of individual political communities (states) nor usurp their appropriate powers. In fact, the public authority exists to serve local communities rather than to dominate them. In the church’s view, international law must ensure that the law of the most powerful does not prevail.

To this end, Catholic teaching has consistently supported the United Nations and its predecessor bodies. (Pope Benedict XV, for example, called for the creation of an international alliance as early as 1920.) The church believes the United Nations has made a notable contribution to the promotion of respect for human dignity, the freedom of peoples and the requirements of development, thus preparing the cultural and institutional soil for the building of peace. Catholic teaching also positively evaluates the many private associations (nongovernmental organizations, or N.G.O.’s) that produce gestures of solidarity and peace on the international level.

Global poverty receives special attention. Catholic social teaching has long recognized that poverty results from erroneous human choices, from economic, financial and socialmechanisms. More recently it has attributed these deficiencies to structures of sin. The church believes the poverty of billions of men and women is the one issue that most challenges our human and Christian conscience.’ The option or preferential love of the Church for the poorseeks to remind the nations of the world that all are really responsible for all.

Peace Through Justice

Chapter 11 tackles the issues of war and peace. After a brief but comprehensive review of the biblical basis for peace, we read, The crucified Jesus has overcome divisions, re-establishing peace and reconciliation, precisely through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end’ (Eph2:16) and bringing the salvation of the Resurrection to mankind.

A Christian view of peace will necessarily be at odds with those who merely seek to maintain a balance of power between enemies. The Compendium states definitively, Peace is the fruit of justice,and Peace is also the fruit of love.In an obvious reference to pacifism, we are told that the world needs the witness of unarmed prophets, who are often the objects of ridicule. These prophets are praised because they make use of those means of defense available to the weakest and because they bear witness to evangelical charity. Hence, it may be concluded that a Catholic peacemaker is one who uses nonviolent strategies to build a just society based on love for all.

What, then, about the just war? The Compendium addresses the just war doctrine and offers the following strict conditions for recourse to war to settle disputes between nations:

The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;

All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

There must be serious prospects of success; the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

Contemporary Catholic social teaching has consistently urged, however, that disputesand warsbe settled through the United Nations and insisted that necessityand proportionality must characterize exercise of the right to self-defense. On this count, the magisterium makes a strong statement about preventive war: Therefore, engaging in a preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent cannot fail to raise serious moral and juridical questions.

The magisterium has given consistent support to the recently establishedInternational Criminal Courtin order to punish those responsible for particularly serious acts such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. Economic sanctions are accepted in order to secure negotiation and dialogue with the offending party. These sanctions, however, have their limits: Sanctions must never be used as a means for the direct punishment of an entire population.

The Compendium condemns terrorismin the most absolute terms. This section observes that terrorism has evolved from extremist organizations to a shadowy network of political collusion. Terrorist targets are generally places of daily life and not military objectives in the context of a declared war. There is a right to defend oneself against terrorism,but that right cannot be exercised in the absence of moral and legal norms, because the struggle against terrorism must be carried out with respect for human rights and the principles of a state ruled by law. Finally, there are the much-neglected obligations in the war on terror, to analyze the reasons behind terrorist attacks and to resolve the problems that in certain dramatic circumstances can foster terrorism.


I conclude with several observations about Chapters 9 and 11.

First, when one reads the entirety of Catholic social teaching on international affairs and war and peace in its proper context, it is quite clear that for Catholics the resort to war is becoming more and more restricted. The just war principles are being applied in a rigorous fashion that clearly favors apresumption against warwitness the fact that almost no wars in the past 60 years have enjoyed magisterial support. This is true largely because the Catholic vision of world community strongly supports, and calls Catholics to rely on, international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to defend societies through social justice, preventive diplomacy and the rule of law. That, together with its exceptionally strong endorsement for nonviolent strategies of defense, has caused the church, especially in the age of weapons of mass destruction, to seek international strategies that make recourse to war unthinkable.

Second, the Compendium’s discussion on terrorism is quite good as far as it goes, but the document limits terrorists mostly to non-state actors or at least to actors that collude with states. The addition of state actors in the terrorist discussion would, therefore, be welcome. One thinks, for example, of death squads, torture practices, political assassinations, denial of rights to prisoners and indiscriminate (obliteration) bombing as state-sponsored acts that target innocent people for political purposes. Clearly, nation states can perform terrorist acts, and have done so, sometimes against their own citizens. Terrorist acts by states should be included as well as those by non-state actors.

Third, although there is a very helpful Index of References (which includes a valuable 163-page analytical index), a future edition of the Compendium could be strengthened by referring the reader to additional statements that have been made by national and regional episcopal conferences on war and peace. Readers ofAmericaare aware that the U.S. Catholic Conference, for example, has made numerous statements on international affairs, including the highly acclaimed The Challenge of Peace (1983) and The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (1993). Reference to these documents (along with those of other national conferences) will carry more weight with the social, political and economic order that this text is meant to influence. These national documents often contribute to the social awareness of the global church. Their inclusion would be a reminder that individual bishops and national bishops’ conferences, as well as the pope and Roman bodies, are teachers of faith and morals. While some may worry about divergences among conferences, such differences will point out the variety of situations in which Catholic social teaching must be applied and assist in the refinement of the teaching over time.

Fourth, this powerful presentation of Catholic social teaching is bound to challenge the Bush administration and its Catholic apologists. On point after pointthe document’s deep respect for the United Nations and international law; its call for a universal public authority that will banish war; its conviction that poverty is the one contemporary issue that challenges the Christian conscience; its praise for unarmed prophets of conscience; the very strict restrictions it places on the just war doctrine; its call to end indiscriminate trading in arms; its conviction that preventive war cannot be waged without clear proof that an attack is imminent; its strong support for the International Criminal Court; and its call to fight the war on terrorism with respect for human rights and the principles of a state ruled by lawCatholic social thought is clearly at odds with the neoconservative philosophy that has been embraced by many in the Bush administration.

The Compendium is destined to be a classic that belongs in the library of every reader ofAmerica. It is a work of biblical vision as well as political realism. Perhaps its most valuable contributionis the examination of our troubled age in the context of the Gospel rather than that of the passing philosophies of the moment. We should be delighted, therefore, that words like justice and love are used to speak to an age that sorely needs both. Peace, the Compendium tells us, is integral or foundational to the mission of the church in and for the world. These wonderful chapters speak to the heart as well as the spirit of our age.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Catherine Pakaluk, who currently teaches at the Catholic University of America and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, describes her tweet to Mr. Macron as “spirited” and “playful.”
Emma Winters October 19, 2018
A new proposal from the Department of Homeland Security could make it much more difficult for legal immigrants to get green cards in the United States. But even before its implementation, the proposal has led immigrants to avoid receiving public benefits.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 19, 2018
 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018
Kevin Clarke tells us about his reporting from Iraq.
Olga SeguraOctober 19, 2018