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Kevin ClarkeJune 10, 2024
Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, walks through surveys the ruin of Gaza City during a visit at Pentecost. At a press conference on May 20 following his return to Jerusalem, he said he found the small resilient community of the Holy Family Parish compound to have "steadfast faith" amid horrific destruction and constant bombardment it experienced. (OSV News photo/courtesy Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Years of a so-called shadow war between Israel and Iran erupted into a hot conflict in April after an Israeli strike in Damascus killed senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranian forces retaliated days later with an armada of over 300 drones and missiles across Israel.

The cold war between Iran and Israel heating up into the first direct tit-for-tat attacks was just one of 70 conflicts being followed in May by CrisisWatch, the global conflict tracker of the International Crisis Group. The war in Ukraine continues to be a focus of the database, of course, but other conflicts that drew attention included a notable spike in violence in Sudan and renewed clashes in Ethiopia’s Tigray region that displaced thousands of people.

Political, ethnic and sectarian tensions mounted in a number of other African nations, including Chad, Central African Republic, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. In Myanmar, ethnic militias scored surprising battlefield successes. The mostly forgotten tragedy in Syria continued, and criminal gangs and pillaging militias threatened to engulf Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

That summary reflects just a small portion of the conflicts happening today, even if many of them do not draw as much attention as the devastating wars in Gaza and Ukraine. Humankind has been a constant witness to wars and rumors of wars, but we seem to be entering a particularly conflict-cursed time. The horror of the last century’s bloodletting appears to have been forgotten as global powers large and small rediscover an enthusiasm for war-making as a tool toward regional and geopolitical goals, and long-unresolved conflicts over borders, ethnic aspirations and dwindling resources flare into renewed fighting.

An analysis by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, cited in the October 2023 issue of Foreign Affairs, finds that the number, intensity and length of conflicts worldwide is at its highest level since before the end of the Cold War. Those conflicts converge into historic levels of economic upheaval and human displacement. The cost of total global violence spiked 7 percent in 2022 to $17.5 trillion—the equivalent of 13 percent of the world’s gross domestic product—according to the Institute for Economics & Peace.

By the end of September 2023, the number of people displaced by conflict and violence exceeded 114 million, according to United Nations officials, in the largest single-year increase in forced displacement ever recorded. Two billion people, one-quarter of humanity, live in places affected by conflict, menaced not only by violence but by the poverty, hunger and collapsing infrastructures that accompany war-making.

Bill O’Keefe is the executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. church’s Baltimore-based agency for global relief and development. The conflict in the Sahel region of Africa and the devastation in Gaza, Ukraine and Myanmar are just a few of the conflict-driven crises C.R.S. and other humanitarian organizations have been forced to contend with. The sum of these and other conflicts, Mr. O’Keefe says, has meant an overall reversal of what had been a historic period of progress against hunger and poverty.

In 2015, the U.N. announced its Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious project aimed at cutting global poverty and immiseration in half by 2030. Now, “there’s a general consensus,” Mr. O’Keefe says, “that we’re not going to make those goals, and that’s really tragic.”

António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, speaks of a “world unhinged” by conflict and climate change. Because of dysfunction on the Security Council, the weakening of de-escalation mechanisms established during the Cold War and the emergence of a multipolar reality, “our world is entering an age of chaos,” the secretary general said. “We are seeing the results: a dangerous and unpredictable free-for-all with total impunity.”

The international order that followed the end of the Second World War has been at least rhetorically focused on converting war-making into an anachronism, a grand ambition explicitly endorsed in the charter that created the U.N. in 1945. That document itself added a modern codification to what Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of law and international peace studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, called the church’s “ancient prohibition” on war—its various attempts through just war teaching to throw moral and legalistic obstacles before a preferential option for war.

She says the post-World War II era has surely experienced its share of armed conflict, especially in brutal independence wars aimed at uprooting European colonialism. But she senses something unique about contemporary war-making.

“There is more war, and there are factors that make the current wars more deadly and more difficult to manage,” she says, factors that “create a sense of greater chaos and a greater sense of threat and crisis that we all feel.”

Our hyper-connected world is partly responsible for that heightened contemporary dread. The global public is experiencing conflict “in a more intense way,” she says.

Scenes of faraway violence flash live onto iPhones, offering real-time images of the brutality of war and the suffering of innocent people trapped in conflict zones. Modern weapons are more deadly to combatants and noncombatants alike, and hybrid combat driven by drone technology and guided by artificial intelligence seems to compound the inhumanity of modern conflict.

Dr. O’Connell concurs with Pope Francis’ repeated warnings of a third world war happening piecemeal, crowding out a sense of hope and security in the future. “It feels like the world’s on fire,” she says.

The gloom is exacerbated by the existential threat of climate change, an underlying factor in many conflicts as different nations and, within borders, different ethnicities find themselves in unprecedented competition for resources, “making otherwise large problems even more unmanageable,” Dr. O’Connell says.

Despite its inhumane and anarchic effects, war-making is now guided by internationally accepted rules that have their origins in various 19th-century and 20th-century efforts to somehow civilize warfare. Those rules are compiled today under international humanitarian law or the law of armed conflict. That compendium of laws includes the Geneva Conventions and continues through to modern agreements and conventions that have, among other measures, abolished chemical weapons and landmines, sought to protect cultural sites from destruction during armed conflict, and spell out obligations to protect children and other noncombatants.

A weakening of those laws over the last three decades has contributed to a sense of growing global disorder, according to Dr. O’Connell. Since the end of the Cold War, she believes, the United States has come to believe it “could make up or reinterpret those rules because [it was] the sole superpower.”

That behavior, in the end, diminished accepted standards of casus belli that has led to a broad weakening of principles for justifying the use of force or how a party may behave while participating in armed conflict.

“We saw that starkly when Russia used this potpourri of different arguments” to justify its invasion of Ukraine, Dr. O’Connell says. Many of those justifications for armed conflict had already been deployed by the United States to rationalize its intervention in Kosovo and its invasion of Iraq, its use of drone warfare and targeted killing, and “why we stayed on and on and on in Afghanistan,” she says—“all these reinterpretations and self-serving manipulations of the actual law.”

The U.S. war on terror in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—the reverberations of which are still playing out—reset the ground rules for wars of self-defense to disastrous and costly effect for the United States and the entire Middle East. That experience ought to be a cautionary tale for Israeli strategists today.

Acts of terror should be treated as criminal offenses, not justifications for total war, Dr. O’Connell argues, noting the disproportionate consequences of the Israeli war on Hamas in Gaza.

Total War Returns to Europe

Remnant hopes for a post-Cold War period of peaceful coexistence among European powers were shattered on Feb. 22, 2022, when Russian troops stormed across the border with Ukraine in what they expected to be a weeklong sprint to Kyiv and a lightning victory. But the war, now mired in its third year, appears far from any kind of peaceful resolution.

And there simply may not be one. That is the unhappy conclusion of the Most Rev. Borys Gudziak, the metropolitan archbishop of Philadelphia of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Archbishop Gudziak acknowledges pacifism as an important and valid current in the church’s contemporary witness. But he says the situation in Ukraine makes that witness “not so simple.”

It is “very different” speaking outside a war zone about how to get to peace, he says. “And it’s very different when there is wanton brutality that becomes of a genocidal nature.”

“Ukrainians don’t want an inch of Russian territory. Ukrainians don’t want to determine what’s going on in Russia. But Ukrainians aren’t going to allow themselves to be obliterated. And that’s basically what the situation is.”

Archbishop Gudziak runs through a litany of crimes by the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin, beginning with the destruction of Grozny in Chechnya through to the murderous rampage in Syria and, in Ukraine, the homicidal pillaging of Bucha, the obliteration of the Russian-speaking city of Mariupol and more. Mr. Putin is not a leader who can be reasoned or negotiated with, Archbishop Gudziak says. He can only be stopped.

The church, he points out, is also the custodian of a just war tradition that accepts self-defense as a morally legitimate last resort. There is no question in Archbishop Gudziak’s view that Ukraine’s defense of its borders, and indeed its right to exist in defiance of Mr. Putin’s nullifying beliefs, falls well within the parameters of the church’s just war principles. It is sadly not the first time Ukraine has had to face an existential dilemma because of the designs of its powerful neighbor.

The Church’s Struggle for Peace

In the face of complex challenges to peace like Ukraine, and the Hamas attack on southern Israel and the reprisal that has provoked, what can the church do to keep alive the hope for a world at real peace?

It can keep doing what it has always been doing, says Gerard Powers, coordinator of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and the director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Just about all the conflicts that are “rearing their ugly heads now in new ways,” he says, have been moldering for years, sometimes decades. Over those years, the Holy See has consistently brought attention to the issues of inequity and injustice that propel conflicts.

The church played a key role in improving relations between Cuba and the Obama administration; it has worked to achieve and maintain the peace in Colombia, where Mr. Powers’s own Kroc Institute continues a crucial monitoring role. Pope Francis has hop-scotched around the world promoting peace and reconciliation face to face. The church has been especially active in Africa, where, far from headlines in the Western media, almost half the human suffering engendered by armed conflict is taking place.

The Holy See has been at the forefront in recent years, Mr. Powers adds, in pressing for nuclear nonproliferation and was among the first states to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2021.

In even lower-profile efforts on the ground to address the economic, social and political imbalances that lead to conflict, the church sponsors a host of humanitarian, reconciliation and civic-development agencies—monitoring elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, assessing human rights conditions in El Salvador and raising alarms about the impact of extractive industries in Peru.

And while the church indeed presses for “a negative peace” (that is, geopolitical purgatories where there may still be ethnic, economic or political tensions but at least “no direct violence”), it also pursues a peace with justice agenda, according to Mr. Powers. “Integral peace, integral development and integral ecology—they’re all interconnected, as the pope says.”

Aid groups like C.R.S. have long understood the pernicious impact of armed conflict on human development and the necessity for an approach to human development that includes deep peacebuilding. The catastrophe in Rwanda in 1994, when decades of progress were obliterated by over 100 days of genocidal violence, drove a shocked institutional examen. After Rwanda, “peacebuilding and justice work really began to become part and parcel of what we were doing as Catholic Relief Services,” says Nell Bolton, who helps lead the agency’s peacebuilding efforts.

Ms. Bolton makes an important distinction between her work as a peace builder and the critical complementary role of peacemaker. “Finding a way to get the parties together to a peace agreement is obviously critical,” she explains, but “we think of peacebuilding as all of those building blocks that lead to sustainable peace that you should be working on before, during and after violent conflict.”

What does that look like on the ground? In parts of East and Central Darfur in Sudan, what Ms. Bolton called one of the world’s most acute “forgotten crises,” C.R.S. and local partners strive to keep vital avenues of dialogue open as tensions mount. Those efforts will not affect “what’s happening with the high-level political conflict, but they’re really critical activities to keeping the social fabric intact and also ensuring localized conflicts, which are often over natural resources in Darfur…are dealt with constructively and nonviolently.”

Peacebuilding work “takes patience, it takes time, and there’s a lot of ‘one step forward, two steps back.’… If you’re only thinking of it from a ‘projectized’ perspective, you’re going to lose the thread on that long and winding road to peace,” Ms. Bolton says.

And “sometimes results can seem fleeting,” especially when “communities continue to be buffeted by these higher-level political conflicts.” She points out that with respect to the recent violence in Darfur, the community members C.R.S. worked with are struggling to put the peacebuilding tactics they learned to use.

She thinks their perseverance under extreme duress offers a good lesson. “If we want to build a more peaceful and sustainable world, it has to be action that’s mobilized at every level, wherever it’s possible. It can’t be something that is only deferred to those at higher levels, as essential as stopping the fighting actually is,” she says. “Our long-term vision for peace calls on all of us to do what we can, where we can.”

Superpower Obligations

As citizens of “arguably the superpower in the world,” U.S. Catholics indeed have an elevated responsibility to be attentive to peacemaking, Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv., says—“especially when we try to present ourselves as a Christian nation.”

In addition to his duties leading the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., Bishop Stowe is the bishop-president of Pax Christi USA, the promoter of Catholic pacifism in the United States. According to Bishop Stowe, Pax Christi USA works “on multiple approaches all of the time”—outreach, advocacy and education—in promoting peacemaking as a practical alternative in U.S. geopolitical policymaking.

But its real work is changing hearts and minds; that is, its real work is conversion.

“The foundation for us is a spirituality of nonviolence, trying to understand that at the core of our Christian faith…is that violence is not acceptable,” he says. “And we have to criticize our own culture, as well as many cultures around the world, where we too easily give in to violence.”

He understands that pacifism is a “very hard message to sell,” one that demands “breaking away from a dominant way of thinking.”

“I can’t help but think that some of the resistance to Pope Francis is that what he’s calling us to is a much more radical living of the Gospel.” That is a challenge to many U.S. Catholics who have accepted compromises with the demands of the Gospel to rationalize the American way of life and the nation’s global dominance.

Pope Francis, who has frequently urged negotiation to resolve conflict, called for cease-fires in Gaza and Ukraine, urged nuclear and conventional disarmament, and condemned the arms trade, “has been heroic,” Bishop Stowe says, in his efforts for peace. The pope has traveled into an active conflict zone in the Central African Republic and brought South Sudanese leaders to Rome, where he literally kissed their feet, “begging them to put down weapons and to find ways to resolve issues peacefully.”

Bishop Stowe describes the pope’s encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” as “another basic call to live the Christian life as Jesus proclaimed it and to recognize that we shouldn’t resort to violence to resolve our differences…[and] if we were really rooted in the common dignity of every human being, that we are really brothers and sisters.”

The bishop describes U.S. Catholics as “not very prophetic when it comes to the issues of war and peace,” too often quiet in their communities and even their churches when U.S. leaders resort to the use of force.

In the United States, the pacifist tradition is treated like a “wing of the church,” a specialization, he notes, something some Catholics get involved in so others “don’t have to bother.” Pacifism is “not as essentialized the way some other beliefs are.”

At the same time, Pope Francis has been trying “to put Catholic social teaching, and in particular, the teaching on war and peace, very much at the center of our faith.”

“The church in the United States should definitely be taking into account the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ teaching,” Bishop Stowe says. He believes that message “was spelled out very well” in “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” the 1983 peace pastoral from the U.S. Catholic bishops.

Does this period of apparent elevated conflict make now a good time to revisit that document?

“I honestly don’t expect the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to take on anything that is outward looking and engaged in global affairs in the way that either the pastoral on peace or the pastoral on economics was,” Bishop Stowe says, referring to “The Challenge of Peace” and “Economic Justice for All,” published in 1983 and 1986, respectively. But he does appreciate individual efforts like “Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace:A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament,” a pastoral letter written by Archbishop John Wester from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M., for highlighting contemporary pacifism and continuing the church’s efforts toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Whether one hews to the church’s just war tradition or to its pacifist path, Mr. O’Keefe says that in the United States, Catholics have a responsibility to make sure that their government, so often a player in regional tensions that can break out into conflict, “is doing everything it possibly can diplomatically to bring people and parties together to address their conflicts peacefully.”

And U.S. Catholics have another arena to join in reducing conflict: their stewardship of the national budget. In March the Biden administration requested $850 billion for the Department of Defense for the 2025 fiscal year. C.R.S. does not have a position “on what the right amount would be for a country to defend itself,” Mr. O’Keefe said, “but what we do know is that the balance is out of whack.”

He would prefer deeper investment in efforts that get at the root causes of conflict through spending on foreign assistance and human development.

Polling regularly indicates that Americans believe something of the order of 15 to 25 percent of the U.S. budget is spent on overseas assistance each year, but the true outlay is “less than 0.5 percent for the core [spending] that really addresses poverty and hunger and basic human needs.”

Catholic citizens are well within their rights to let elected officials know, Mr. O’Keefe says, that “we care about addressing poverty and hunger around the world” and that “this is something that comes from our faith, and we want our government to do more.”

Greater Goods to Be Achieved in Ukraine

The Biden administration’s next budget calls for a little over $10 billion in spending on humanitarian aid that addresses some of the hunger and poverty Mr. O’Keefe speaks of, assisting 330 million people in more than 70 nations. Supplemental emergency spending in response to crises in Gaza, Ukraine and other conflict zones doubles that figure, but total outlays on humanitarian intervention still look meager, especially when compared to the generous $95 billion package recently doled out to Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine.

By April 2024, military aid to Ukraine alone since the Russian invasion was $70 billion—with total aid to Ukraine surpassing $175 billion. Still, a chorus of foreign policy advisors say the United States has little choice but to keep the money flowing.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going,” Winston Churchill is alleged to have said. The way to real peace in Ukraine and Europe is all the way through, Archbishop Gudziak says—to putting an end to Vladimir Putin’s imperialist dreams of Great Russia.

There are even greater goods at stake than the survival of the Ukrainian people at the outcome of this test in Europe. A victory for Ukraine will discourage future military adventurism by other powers, safeguarding the international rule of law, he says, “which will be in tatters if Russia is allowed to conquer an independent country.”

And a Ukrainian victory would reinforce the West’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation. At the time of the unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1991, “Ukraine had more nuclear warheads than France, Great Britain and China put together,” Archbishop Gudziak points out.

Ukraine became one the few countries in the world to voluntarily surrender its nuclear arsenal, based on security guarantees it received in 1994 from the United States, the United Kingdom and, yes, the Russian Federation. Other nuclear powers issued follow-up commitments to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its farewell to nuclear arms. That is a precedent that must be respected if the global community hopes to contend with the problem of nuclear proliferation, Archbishop Gudziak says.

The archbishop seems painfully aware that his call for more fighting in the interest of peace will sound jarring to many. But “if Ukraine wins, it will be a source of great deterrence, [including] nuclear deterrence, and it will also be [a victory] for the preservation of international law,” he summarizes.

“Any level-headed thinking that takes into account the sinfulness of human nature, the typology of imperialists and dictators and the real evidence of history, both more distant and immediate, knows there’s no other way,” Archbishop Gudziak says, before adding after a beat, “unless the Lord miraculously intercedes.”

“And we pray for that,” he says. “We pray for that 10 times a day.”

Correction (June 14): Bishop John Stowe was misidentified in an earlier version of this report. He is John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv., not John Stowe, O.F.M., and he is the bishop-president of Pax Christi USA, not the bishop-president of the national council of Pax Christi USA.

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