The following text is adapted from Part II of Advancing Nonviolence and Just Peace in the Church: Biblical, Theological, Ethical, Pastoral and Strategic Dimensions of Nonviolence, published by Pax Christi International.
In his 2017 World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis shared with all Christians and with all people on earth a landmark call to learn, practise and mobilise the humanising power of active nonviolence in responding resolutely to the global crisis of violence. This message built on the accelerating articulation by the leadership of the Church over the past half century of the critical need for humanity to turn to nonviolence in our lives, our societies and our world. This papal message—“Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace”—was the clearest statement yet by the Vatican on the centrality of nonviolence to the life and mission of Jesus, and thus to the life and mission of the Church.
From Vatican II onward
Since the 1960s official Catholic teaching has uniformly deplored the destruction and disaster of war, pressing the point that it always represents a moral failure. Although the idea and theory of a just war has not officially been repudiated, no pope since the Second Vatican Council has approved a war, or even mounted a defence of the justice of war in principle. The use of violent force for humanitarian purposes—in cases of horrific threats to human life, human security and social order—is still acknowledged by Catholic teaching. Yet the focus of recent official statements has been certainly on nonviolence, and on the incompatibility of violence with transformational justice. Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have repeatedly denounced the savagery of war. John Paul, Benedict and Francis have all echoed Paul VI’s cry, “No more war, war never again!”
Quotes from recent popes (through 2016)
- Pacem in Terris (1963) John XXIII
- Gaudium et Spes (1965) Vatican II Council document
- Populorum progressio, 1967, Paul VI
- “If you want peace, work for justice” (1972 World Day of Peace message) Paul VI
- “Reconciliation, the way to peace” (1975 World Day of Peace message) Paul VI
- Evangelii Nuntiani #37, 1975, apostolic exhortation, Paul VI: “The Church cannot accept violence, especially the force of arms – which is uncontrollable once it is let loose – and indiscriminate death as the path to liberation, because she knows that violence always provokes violence and irresistibly engenders new forms of oppression and enslavement which are often harder to bear than those from which they claimed to bring freedom.”
- “The real weapons of peace” (1976 World Day of Peace message) Paul VI: “[H]as not our own time had an example of what can be done by [one person], Gandhi – armed only with the principle of nonviolence – to vindicate for a nation of hundreds of millions of human beings the freedom and dignity of a new people?”
- Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 496, 2006 John Paul II: “Violence is never a proper response.”
- Caritas in veritate, 2009, Benedict XVI
- Laudato Si’, 2015, Francis
2017 World Day of Peace Message
Pope Francis’s World Day of Peace Message issued on 1 January 2017 has gone beyond previous papal statements in laying out a robust substantive theological and pastoral articulation of nonviolence.
That Pope Francis consciously chose “nonviolence” as the theme of his message to the world on New Year’s Day 2017 is powerful. The pope unabashedly pointed out that “nonviolence” is what Jesus taught and modelled and said, “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.”i The pope is signalling a true return to the sources for the Catholic Church: Sacred scripture and the traditions of the early Church.
As Pope Francis reclaims Jesus’s teaching on nonviolence, he is saying that in the face of violence and war: no more quiescence, no more anguished acceptance, no more standing on the side wringing hands. Instead get in the middle of the fray and fight violence with the “weapons of truth and love”. He underlines the teaching with the penetrating words of Benedict XVI: “Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the Christian revolution.”
Since publishing the 2017 World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis has used the word “nonviolence” in various statements and interviews. Even more substantively, the pope has promulgated historic, nonviolent positions, including making the death penalty inadmissible and condemning the possession, as well as the use, of nuclear weapons.
Episcopal pastoral letters and statements
Though the focus of this discussion has been on post-Vatican II popes, it is important to realise that the most effective “official” teachers of Gospel nonviolence in local contexts are the local episcopacy, accompanied by clergy, religious, pastoral ministers, catechists, community workers and members of base communities. Their existential perspective is frequently very different from that of high-level Vatican teachers, heads of state and international leaders who have the power and prerogative to deliberate about unleashing their considerable military arsenals (or even a UN peacekeeping force) against less powerful aggressors.
For example, in Medellín, Colombia (1968), the Conference of Latin American Bishops named the support by political authorities of an oppressive elite as a major source of violence, and recognised structural injustice as a form of “institutionalised violence”. They called for a Church that is not only nonviolent, but in solidarity with those who are poor. In 1983, the bishops of the United States reflected their own cultural situation within a superpower nation, when they embraced Gospel nonviolence in the first half of their pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace”. Yet they went on in the second half to endorse a policy of “strictly conditioned” nuclear deterrence which placed the lives of millions and the health of the entire planet in jeopardy. “The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace”, the US bishops’ pastoral letter issued on the 10th anniversary of “The Challenge of Peace”, was more critical of just war theory, called for “peaceable virtues” and underlined the potential of nonviolence to be a principle of political debate and government decisions. And in November 2017 the Vatican sharply answered the 1983 position by officially condemning the possession of nuclear weapons and shifting from an acceptance of the policy of deterrence.
Following is a sample of statements by bishops and episcopal conferences on nonviolence. Please send additions to this list to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Do not be afraid; rise above adversity. This “message of encouragement and hope” was released by the Catholic bishops of South Sudan on 16 June 2016. It can also be found on the Solidarity with South Sudan website.
- Bishop Kevin Dowling C.Ss.R., Rustenburg, South Africa: A Catholic vision of nonviolence for Africa, 5 December 2016.
- Bishop Kevin Dowling, C.Ss.R., Rustenburg, South Africa: Nonviolence and peacemaking: Lessons from Oscar Romero, Denis Hurley and Pope Francis 25 January 2017.
- The bishops’ conference of Japan endorsed the Appeal to the Catholic Church to recommit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence and sent a letter to Cardinal Peter Turkson.
- Ten Days for Peace (2017), a message from the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan.
- Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP): The many names of God and the blessing of peace, 30 April 2015: “To kill in God’s name – this is one of the most painful contradictions of our time! … Jesus is the incarnation of the supreme welcome of the other.”
- CBCP: Striving for a Just Peace, the moral road, 11 July 2015: “All-out war is not the answer to the Mindanao situation. … We want a Bangsamoro Basic Law that is rooted in social justice…”
- CBCP: Statement on torture, 23 June 2015
- CBCP: On the killing of voiceless and defenceless lumads, 11 September 2015, Your Brother’s Blood Cries Out to Me from the Ground! (Gen 4:10)
- CBCP: Pastoral appeal to our law enforcers: Appeal to reason and humanity, 20 June 2016: “To kill a suspect outright, no matter how much surveillance work may have antecedently been done on the suspect, is not morally justified. Suspicion is never the moral equivalent of certainty, and punishment may be inflicted only on the ground of certainty.”
- CBCP: Ethical guidelines on proposals to restore the death penalty, 14 September 2016: “To every man and woman is open, by the Saviour, Jesus Christ, the invitation to the fullness of life. Every man and woman is a person redeemed by God’s own Son, made an adopted son or daughter of God, and heir to the promise of the Resurrection. This is the dignity of the human person. It is this dignity that the death penalty transgresses.”
- CBCP: Pastoral on deaths and killings, 30 January 2017: “We, your bishops, are deeply concerned due to many deaths and killings in the campaign against prohibited drugs. This traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome. But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers. … Every person has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Society has ways and processes to catch, prove guilty and punish perpetrators of crimes. This process must be followed, especially by agents of the law.”
- CBCP: Statement on Marawi, terrorism and dialogue, 10 July 2017: “We all cry from our hearts: War in Marawi, never again! War in Marawi, no more! We therefore call for the return to normalcy and peace in Marawi and its environs as soon as possible. … The basis for peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God and love of neighbor.”
- CBCP bishops oppose arming priests in response to the killing of priests, 12 June 2018: “We are men of God, men of the Church and it is part of our ministry to face dangers, to face deaths if one may say that way. But we would do it, just what Jesus did.” ‘
- “Fiji archbishop advocates nonviolence to help stabilize social unrest”, National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2019.
- “Hong Kong bishop: Rosary is ‘nonviolent resistance’ to evil”, PagadianDiocese.org.
- Belgian bishops endorsed the “Appeal to the Catholic Church to Recommit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence”.
- German Bishops Conference: “Gerechter Friede“ (“A Just Peace“), 27 September 2000
- East German (GDR) Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on peace (1983)
- “The Church is in the midst of a fundamental reappraisal of how to balance the Christian obligation to nonviolence with the need to resist evil in the world. … The power of nonviolence, once relegated to the category of romantic idealism, has emerged as a potent force for social transformation and the building of lasting peace.” — Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, speaking after Pope Francis’s remarks at a Vatican conference on nuclear disarmament held in November 2017.
- The challenge of peace, US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), God’s promise and our response, a pastoral letter on war and peace, 3 May 1983.
- The harvest of justice is sown in peace, USCCB, a reflection of the USCCB on the 10th anniversary of the Challenge of Peace.
- A statement to the Muslim community, Catholic bishops of Saskatchewan 2017: “condemning violence, particularly violence in the name of God, whose name is peace”, 30 January 2017.
- Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori’s pastoral letter on nonviolence begins a dialogue in his archdiocese on nonviolence, racism and the struggle for justice based on the principles of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Que en Cristo Nuestra Paz México tenga Vida Digna, Mexico (2010)
- Conference of Latin American Bishops, Medellín, Colombia (1968); excerpts on justice, peace and poverty from final document, 6 September 1968 (Excerpted by Gerald Schlabach)
- Archbishop Oscar Romero, El Salvador: The Church and Popular Political Organizations: Third Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Romero, co-authored by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, Bishop of Santiago de María, Feast of the Transfiguration (6 August 1978)
- Archbishop Oscar Romero, El Salvador: The Church’s Mission Amid the National Crisis: Fourth Pastoral Letter (6 August 1979)
- Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas, San Salvador: Pastoral Letter: “I See Strife in the City”: On the Occasion of the Feast of the Beloved Blessed Oscar Romero (24 March 2016)
- Aparecida (Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean) #541-543: peace and violence issues are addressed; the power of love is contrasted with violence
- Writings of Dom Helder Camara of Brazil