Pope Francis’s peacebuilding pedagogy

Following is a commentary written by Dr. Gerald Schlabach, one of the participants in the 2016 Nonviolence & Just Peace conference, on Pope Francis’s 2017 World Day of Peace message. Dr. Schlabach teaches at the University of  St. Thomas, Minneapolis. A longer version of this piece is posted on his blog.

It is not too soon to anticipate the challenge of “reception.”

All signs suggest that Pope Francis’s 2017 World Day of Peace (WDP) message will only be an initial response to the appeal for clearer teaching on gospel nonviolence issued at the historic conference co-sponsored by Pax Christi International and the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace in Rome last April. More is likely to come. Advisers who assist the Holy Father in drafting any future encyclical, as well as activists who seek to amplify papal signals, have some clear markers to follow.

Vatican-ese can sometimes be frustrating but its nuance sometimes serves to balance considerations and forge consensus in a complex global community. Pope Francis exercises an appropriate Vatican savvy as he alludes to the possible use of “just war” criteria his WDP message, yet leaves the theory unnamed – for now, neither rejected outright nor defended.

What Pope Francis names instead is the space that the Catholic moral traditions have hoped the “just war” theory would fill. Section 6 of the WDP message begins this way:

Peacebuilding through active nonviolence is the natural and necessary complement to the Church’s continuing efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms; she does so by her participation in the work of international institutions and through the competent contribution made by so many Christians to the drafting of legislation at all levels.

‍Now because “just war” theory has long provided the framework for those efforts, this sentence might seem to validate its continued use. Yet the papal restraint that left “just war” theory here unnamed also recalls the unease that once prompted Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – later Pope Benedict XVI – to wonder out loud whether “today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war.’”

After all, what Pope Francis does next in section 6 of his WDP message is breathtaking. He insists that “Jesus himself offers a ‘manual’ for this strategy of peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount.” Two things are going on here.

First, calling the Sermon on the Mount a “‘manual’” is a most intriguing word choice. “Manualism” was a neo-scholastic mode of Catholic moral deliberation ascendant until the Second Vatican Council. Whatever its virtues, its rationalistic focus on natural law tended to de-emphasize biblical sources and thus offered a comfortable home for “just war” casuistry. To now, instead, call the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) the Church’s manual for peacemaking hardly seems an accident.

In any case, a second signal is unmistakable: After reflecting briefly on the Beatitudes as a template for the virtues that any authentic peacemaker will embody, Pope Francis describes the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes as “also a programme and a challenge for political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives” to apply amid “the exercise of their respective responsibilities.” The manual that Jesus provides, in other words, is not just for the personal lives of particularly saintly Christians. It applies to the public realm. It elicits, as the WDP title has already announced, a “style of politics for peace.”

Here, though, is where we must especially anticipate the challenge of reception. Serious biblical exegesis recognizes paradigmatic models in the Sermon on the Mount for a sophisticated practice of active nonviolence that counters injustice with the creativity needed to transform social processes. It is not simply protest and certainly not passivity. Yet the assumption of many is going to be that practicing the Sermon on the Mount in public affairs is a lofty ideal, no more.

Pope Francis certainly knows better. In section 3, he calls Jesus’ message a “radically positive approach,” not just a negative refusal of violence. He pairs Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies with his resistance toward unjust accusers who were about to stone a woman caught in adultery. He also reiterates his predecessor Benedict’s characterization of enemy love as “the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution.’” Then in section 4 he outlines historical examples of how the “decisive and consistent practice of nonviolence has produced effective results.”

Amplifying Pope Francis’s message by tirelessly recounting such histories is obviously one key way to invite a wide reception of gospel nonviolence. Following the exegesis of Matthew 5 by New Testament scholar Walter Wink and Christian ethicist Glen Stassen, another key will be to explain the social dynamics of active nonviolence in which courageously “turning the other cheek” or otherwise loving enemies can expose injustice and turn the tide of bystander complacency into support.

But for a truly wide reception by which jaded opinion-leaders or parishioners anxious about their nations’ security take a second look at Pope Francis’s WDP message now – and eventual encyclical later – we will need still more. Again, though, the Holy Father charts a path in his WDP message, though this time perhaps by papal intuition rather than explicitly.

At various points throughout the document Pope Francis argues for active nonviolence by citing cycles of violence and the need to escape them. The pope does not deny that war may sometimes respond to injustice. Yet, he asks, “Where does this lead? Does violence achieve any goal of lasting value?” No, it leads “to retaliation and a cycle of deadly conflict” (section 2). Gospel nonviolence is the truly revolutionary alternative because “responding to evil with good” rather than “succumbing to evil” in kind breaks “the chain of injustice” (section 3).

This line of reasoning can widen reception of the magisterium’s growing body of teaching on gospel nonviolence because the diagnosis of vicious cycles is something with which practitioners of “just war” theory can agree. In war, even winners lose. Even supposedly just wars plant the seeds of new resentments, and thus new rounds of mutually reinforcing injustice.

This was Jesus’ own pedagogy in the Sermon on the Mount itself. Glen Stassen has demonstrated that Jesus’ teachings there reveal Jesus’ very approach to moral reasoning. Jesus’ consistent pattern was to first name the people’s “traditional righteousness” or morality, then demonstrate its inability to escape vicious cycles, then offer “transforming initiatives.” His focus was not on dismantling traditional righteousness per se; a standard teaching such as “eye for an eye” might even be commendable as far as it went. But because traditional righteousness did not go far enough, Jesus’ focus was on “transforming initiatives” that resist evils but not in kind. (Also see here.)

The space that the Church has long hoped “just war” theory would fill does need filling. “Just war” theory has long seemed necessary because it offers a lingua franca across worldviews and ethical frameworks. Even those who doubt the justice of any war have sometimes needed to use it as a second language for engaging in “efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms.”

If we follow Jesus’ lead we will not need to wait until all Catholic theologians, bishops, or other opinion-leaders are convinced to abandon their “traditional righteousness” and agree that there is no “just war.” Church-wide reception of gospel nonviolence and just peace can take root simply by moving on, as Jesus’ did, to a second then third point – the diagnosis of vicious cycles as proper complement to the social power and moral imperative of transforming initiatives.

Catholic peacebuilders can be grateful that the Vatican is listening, but we should also learn from Pope Francis’s pedagogically savvy rhetorical strategy. An eventual encyclical may not take down the “just war” theory at one fell swoop. Everything in church history and the development of doctrine suggests that the magisterium is loath to say that great Christian authorities of the past were outright wrong. Rather, popes and church councils look for clever ways to simply move on. My prediction is that the “just war” theory will be damned with faint praise, or killed with a thousand cuts. Our most realistic hope is the “just war” will go the way of capital punishment, which Pope John Paul II did not quite reject in theory but did reject for modern societies (Evangelium Vitae §56).

Pope Francis’s 2017 World Day of Peace message is exactly what that process is going to look like. The job of Catholic peacebuilders is to amplify its signals.

A fuller version of this article is available at http://www.geraldschlabach.net/2017/01/02/wdp17.


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