More than a year in the making, the Nonviolence and Just Peace conference, held in Rome from April 11-13, 2016, brought together more than 80 people for an unprecedented gathering to discuss the Catholic Church’s history of and commitment to nonviolence.
During the opening session, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council, delivered a message from the Holy Father (YouTube) which called “on all people of good will to recognize what Christians profess as a consequence of faith: that it is only by considering our peers as brothers and sisters that humanity can overcome wars and conflicts.” Pope Francis reminded participants that conflicts cannot be avoided and that governments have a right to protect their people. He also said, “Your thoughts on revitalizing the tools of nonviolence, and of active nonviolence in particular, will be a needed and positive contribution.” Read the text of the Holy Father’s message here (available in English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese).
The focus was on the experience of those from the global South and areas of conflict. Participants included members of the clergy (including two archbishops and three bishops), women religious, academics and peace practitioners from around the world; countries represented include (but were not limited to) the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Thailand, DR Congo, El Salvador, South Sudan, Colombia, Burundi, Guatemala, Mexico, and Palestine.
A creative process that allowed each participant to share his or her experience shaped the two and half day gathering. In each of four sessions, a small group would sit in a “fishbowl” formation; every person would speak for a few minutes. Other participants were welcome to approach the “fishbowl” and take a turn to respond or address the given topic. After each large session, the participants broke into seven small groups to share more fully. This led to deep, serious and respectful conversations.
Main Topics and Outcomes
The four main topics addressed included:
- Experiences of nonviolence: Participants were asked to share about their experiences of nonviolence as a spiritual commitment of faith and practical strategy in violent situations and different cultural contexts. What might we learn from such experience to provide soil for theological reflection and action planning?
- Jesus’ way of nonviolence: Participants were asked to share how recent experiences of nonviolence help illuminate our understanding of Jesus’ way of nonviolence and engaging conflict. How does Jesus help illuminate the roots of nonviolence? What has the latest scholarship and praxis revealed about Jesus’ approach and practices for nonviolence and engaging conflict? How might we integrate recent theological reflection on nonviolence? How can we appropriate these insights into present day contexts?
- Nonviolence and Just Peace: Participants were asked how Catholic communities already embody and practice just peace. What are the developments in theological reflection on just peace and how does this build on the scriptures and trajectory of Catholic social thought? How would a turn to just peace impact our moral analysis of conflicts, practices, and engagement with the broader society, including policy makers?
- Moving beyond unending war: Participants were asked to address the reasons for and the ramifications of the Catholic Church making an explicit rejection of the concept of “just war.” They discussed some key elements of a more fruitful ethical framework for engaging acute conflict and addressing the responsibility to protect by developing the themes and practices of nonviolent conflict transformation, nonviolent intervention and just peace.
Nonviolence was the primary focus of the conference. The just war theory was discussed with nuance and the conversation around it was in no way superficial. Participants were committed to peacemaking and nonviolence but many were not pacifists. In dialogue, participants challenged the centrality of the just war tradition and affirmed pro-active, nonviolent approaches to peace-making at all levels.
Repeatedly, participants who live in areas of conflict said, “We are tired of war.” For the Church to promote nonviolence – to deepen its understanding of and commitment to nonviolence – seemed obvious and essential.
Participants affirmed the outcome document, An Appeal to the Catholic Church to recommit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence, during the final afternoon together. It is a commitment to further Catholic understanding and practice of active nonviolence on the road to just peace, and calls on the Church to:
- continue developing Catholic social teaching on nonviolence. In particular, we call on Pope Francis to share with the world an encyclical on nonviolence and Just Peace;
- integrate Gospel nonviolence explicitly into the life, including the sacramental life, and work of the Church through dioceses, parishes, agencies, schools, universities, seminaries, religious orders, voluntary associations, and others;
- promote nonviolent practices and strategies (e.g., nonviolent resistance, restorative justice, trauma healing, unarmed civilian protection, conflict transformation, and peacebuilding strategies);
- initiate a global conversation on nonviolence within the Church, with people of other faiths, and with the larger world to respond to the monumental crises of our time with the vision and strategies of nonviolence and Just Peace;
- no longer use or teach “just war theory”; continue advocating for the abolition of war and nuclear weapons;
- lift up the prophetic voice of the church to challenge unjust world powers and to support and defend those nonviolent activists whose work for peace and justice put their lives at risk.
Conference participants are committed to keeping alive a conversation on the many complex issues related to the meeting and statement, and will look for ways to support the Church’s work for nonviolence – to “integrate Gospel nonviolence explicitly into the life, including the sacramental life, and work of the Church through dioceses, parishes, agencies, schools, universities, seminaries, religious orders, voluntary associations, and others.”
Pax Christi UK devoted the entire August-September 2016 issue of its newsletter, Justpeace, to the conference.
Organizers of “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence” included Pax Christi International, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Union of International Superiors General/Union of Superiors General, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, St. Columban’s Mission Society and Pace e Bene.
Photo by Gerry Lee, Maryknoll.