The conference was an initial step in a new global initiative reaffirming the centrality of active nonviolence to the vision and message of Jesus, to the life of the Catholic Church, and to the long-term vocation of healing and reconciling both people and the planet.
How was the Vatican involved in the conference?
The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) were official co-sponsors of the conference. The PCJP staff was involved in reviewing the purpose, determining the participant list, assisting in the logistics, and participating in the conference. About nine staff persons were present for most of the conference and some had input in the drafting of the outcome document. Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the PCJP, opened the conference by reading a letter from Pope Francis, shared some of his own reflections, offered input in the consensus session for the outcome document, and celebrated the closing Mass. The cardinal has shared the outcome document with Pope Francis, who, after the conference, signaled a desire for the next Synod of Bishops to be on the topic of global peace.
Did only pacifists attend?
It is important to see that “pacifists” is not an adequate description of those who attended the conference. Attendees included people who value the just war theory; people who saw reason for violent force in policing or peacekeeping; people who were committed to nonviolent resistance to injustice; and some who identified as pacifists. What drew us together was our openness to a deeper understanding and commitment to Gospel nonviolence in the Catholic Church. We hope this is where the attention can focus.
What is gospel nonviolence?
Gospel or active nonviolence is the mission of Jesus’ nonviolent love of friends and enemies. (Matthew 5:44, John 15:9-13) This love is oriented by reverence for the image of God in all persons, i.e. human dignity. This dignity is clouded but never lost through our sin, even by those who do horrible acts. Thus, while always practicing love, Jesus also calls us to offer no violent (or de-humanizing) resistance (Matthew 5:39). Killing another person is not loving them, even with “good” intentions. Yet, neither passive nor weak, Jesus’ nonviolence was the transformative power of love in action and resistance. As a way of life, Jesus calls us to develop the habits and practices of active nonviolence in our daily life, i.e. a virtue of nonviolent peacemaking.
St. Pope John Paul II said that “violence is the enemy of justice,” and “it violates our dignity”; Pope Benedict XVI said that “loving the enemy is the nucleus of the Christian revolution” and “it’s impossible to interpret Jesus as violent”; and Pope Francis said, “[T]he true strength of the Christian is the power of truth and love, which leads to the renunciation of all violence. Faith and violence are incompatible.”
Gospel or active nonviolence includes both constructive program and obstructive program. Constructive program is the building up of unity and social goods, with special attention to the marginalized. Jesus modeled this in his care for poor, women, children, sinners, Gentiles, and formation of a community of disciples. Obstructive program is the non-cooperation with injustice or violence, such as strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, or nonviolent civilian-based defense. Jesus modeled this with his non-cooperation at the Temple with the money changers and with his resistance of religious, political, economic, and military system, which led him to the Cross.
For more on this topic see this background paper.
What is unarmed civilian protection?
Unarmed civilian protection (UCP) is an effective and crystallizing methodology for the direct protection of civilians and for localized violence reduction. UCP provides unarmed, specially trained civilians, recruited from many countries and cultures to live and work with local civil society in areas of violent conflict. It has grown in practice and recognition in the last few decades, with over 50 civil society organizations applying UCP methods in 35 conflict areas since 1990. UCP can be applied at all stages of a conflict, but it can be particularly effective at an early stage, to prevent or mitigate violent conflict, and also after violent conflict has subsided, to support the transition to healthy civil society.
Example: In April 2014, armed protesters forced their way into a UN civilian protection area in Jonglei State, South Sudan. They opened fire on the 5,100 internally displaced persons, primarily women and children, who had been sheltering there. Only two Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) members on the ground courageously were able to directly protect five women and nine children in the sudden chaos of the attack. On three separate occasions men with guns approached the NP team who were sheltering together with the women and children in a tukul (mud hut). The men with guns demanded the NP team leave the women and children to be killed. The NP peacekeepers saved the lives of those women and children by refusing to leave them and repeatedly clarifying their role and identities as humanitarian workers. When the attack ended, the team then worked tirelessly into the night collecting the wounded, verifying deaths and working together with partner organizations to organize medical evacuations to Juba.1
What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice is rooted in the scriptures and the way of Jesus. It entails a focus on the harm done to relationships and how to heal that harm, more so than who to blame and how to punish them. Restorative justice is concerned about human needs and roles for the survivors, offenders, and the community. Core practices include survivor-offender conferences, family group conferencing, peacemaking circles, and truth and reconciliation commissions. Restorative justice has been valuable with all types of violations of harm, including murders and sexual assaults. It has demonstrated more human needs being met, agreements frequently reached with greater compliance and lower costs, recidivism being much lower, survivors being more satisfied, and deeper trust being built in the community. It is valuable at all stages of conflict and has been used in schools, neighborhoods, families, workplaces, justice systems, and large-scale conflicts.
What is a “just peace” approach?
We propose a “just peace” approach based on Gospel nonviolence. A just peace approach offers a vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict. This ethic includes a commitment to human dignity and thriving relationships, with specific criteria, virtues, and practices to guide our actions. We recognize that peace requires justice and justice requires peacemaking.
As a virtue-based ethic, it goes beyond pacifism “understood as a rule against violence” by instead challenging us to become better people and societies in engaging conflict. Core virtues would include nonviolent peacemaking, mercy, solidarity, etc. Seven core practices of the virtue of nonviolent peacemaking have been articulated.
Seven just peace criteria within the approach could guide our action choices and apply at all stages of conflict. Thus, they could be part of a just peace approach that replaces the “just war” approach. Here are some examples of a just peace approach to lethal drones, nuclear weapons, and ISIS.
In just peace, it is a key to recognize that the means are the seeds of the ends, so we must use means that reflect the ends we hope to accomplish, if we are to really fully reach such an end.
We propose a just peace approach that includes restorative justice, diplomacy, building community relationships and integral development, prevention of violent conflict, challenging the systems that profit from war, acknowledging our interconnection with and caring for the environment, conflict transformation, cultivating cultures of peace, and much more. Peacebuilding is one set of tools that would help implement a just peace approach.
If the Catholic Church were to make this shift to a just peace approach consistent with Gospel nonviolence then it would be more consistent with Jesus’ way and will liberate us more for nonviolent practices that would better build just peace, prevent war, limit war, heal after war, and even draw society away from war sooner as we more effectively move to outlaw war.
How does this appeal to gospel nonviolence and just peace relate to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’?
With Pope Francis, we hear both the “cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’ 49). We deeply recognize that our lack of connection with the environment is a form of violence and contributes to the activity of war. “Might is right” has engendered immense inequality and acts of violence, such as Iraq (82). Too often power is guided by “norms of alleged necessity, from either utility or security.” However, our “freedom fades” when handed over to such violence (105). Further, “war always does grave harm to the environment” (56), such as the water, soil, air, and influx of disease. Engaging in war is not being faithful to the wisdom we are called to protect and preserve (200). In fact, “fraternal love can only be gratuitous (about gift); it can never be a means of repaying others for what they have done or will do for us. That is why it is possible to love our enemies” (228). Our appeal to Gospel nonviolence and just peace incorporates and orients this wisdom within a broader, faithful, and effective framework for transformation.
What do we mean by “no longer use or teach” just war theory?
The Appeal is to all Catholics, but the initial focus is on the pope and magisterium. The hope is that the pope and magisterium would integrate the Appeal fully into our official teaching, including no longer validating the just war theory as Catholic, as it does in the Catechism, various bishop conference statements, and as regular bishop or other Catholic organizations do as part of their advocacy. However, this doesn’t mean that Catholic academics or others are being asked to not talk about just war in classes or even publications. Catholic academics might still discuss just war as a historical fact of the Church’s tradition, still debate its value, but also spend more time and resources on teaching and developing just peace and peacebuilding consistent with Gospel nonviolence. If the pope and magisterium were to change the teaching, then academics at least would hopefully no longer describe just war as a valid official Catholic teaching. But all of this ultimately depends on a person’s conscience about what one teaches and writes about through this ongoing process. There is no intention to alienate, exclude, or condemn anyone.
In 2013, a five-year International Theological Commission produced an extensive document approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which de-legitimated any Christian justification of violence: “The revelation inscribed in the event of Jesus Christ, which universally manifests the love of God, enables the religious justification of violence to be neutralized on the basis of the Christological and Trinitarian truth of God.”
Why not keep “just war” along with nonviolence and just peace?
The just war approach is not consistent with what Jesus lived, taught, and revealed about God’s will.
Whether in a “restrictive” or “less restrictive” version, the concept of “just war” itself was what the conference raised concerns about. One reason is that the concept primarily has functioned to legitimate war, perpetuate war, and establish a war system. The gains achieved by limiting some actions in war still are overtaken by the suffering caused by ongoing wars, resources given to preparing for war, development of nuclear weapons, the arms trade, and a war system embedded in our economy and politics. If a moral framework has such a pervasive record of shortcomings or some might say failure through 1,600 years of ongoing evolution and refinement, it’s reasonable and even urgent to develop a new moral framework.
Another reason is that the “just war” concept itself, even if not intended and “restrictive,” still functions too often to obstruct the development of nonviolent conflict transformation and just peace by obstructing our attention, imagination, and will to commit to nonviolent practices. (See next question for examples)
If we hold on to the just war model we will always be limited in our ability to find non-military responses, preventing us from finding the resources and skills needed to undertake this work. We rarely ask the question, does war work? We rarely take into account all the costs of war – economic, social, environmental and psychological in measuring its effectiveness. We rarely question whether the money spent on military budgets achieves the true peace and stability that so many seek.
If the Catholic Church were to shift to nonviolence and just peace, then international law would still have just war norms. So, in practice these two approaches would still be operating alongside of each other for now, but the Catholic Church would offer a more effective and faithful voice to the global strategies for engaging conflict.
Both Vatican II (Pastoral Constitution, par. 82) and Pope Paul VI called the Church to go further saying boldly it is “our clear duty to strain every muscle as we work for the time when all war can be completely outlawed.” In turn, a key goal is to outlaw war, not to legitimate or refine the criteria of war by using or teaching just war theory.
We need a new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence. A different path is clearly unfolding in the recent trajectory of Catholic social teaching, which points us in the direction of developing a just peace approach consistent with Gospel nonviolence. For instance, Pope Paul VI said that “the Church cannot accept violence, especially the force of arms.” See the appeal and this pre-conference document for more examples and explanation.
How has the just war theory obstructed the development of nonviolent conflict transformation in the Catholic Church?
Maintaining the just war theory has too often obstructed our attention, imagination and will to commit to nonviolent practices, as Cardinal Turkson affirmed. For instance, maintaining the just war theory has too often obstructed our imagination and will to commit to nonviolent practices. Some examples of this obstruction include: a major Catholic advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. until this past year having no awareness of this specific practice, although the organized practice has been around for 25-30 years; how rarely Catholic leaders speak about or promote nonviolent resistance (especially boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience, etc.) to injustice and violence; how little resistance is mounted by Catholic leaders to enormous military spending, primarily in countries with large militaries; how little we hear from Catholic leaders about the need to humanize or illuminate the dignity of our enemies, especially regarding people in groups like ISIS.
A further example is how many critical articles focus on the relatively small just war part of the statement with little attention or energy to the call to develop nonviolent practices. The fact that so much response to the conference has focused on just war and not on how the Catholic Church can and should develop more Gospel nonviolence in our education, sacramental life, preaching, seminaries, advocacy, funding, agencies, and practices illustrates why maintaining the just war theory in the church too often obstructs our attention, imagination, and even will to commit to more nonviolent conflict transformation.
Isn’t just war theory needed to limit war, especially the in bello criteria?
The concept of “just war” primarily has functioned to legitimate war, perpetuate war, and establish a war system. The gains achieved in limiting some actions in war still are overtaken by the suffering caused by ongoing wars, resources given to preparing for war, development of nuclear weapons, the arms trade, and a war system embedded in our economy and politics.
A moral framework of Gospel nonviolence and just peace would likely do a better job of actually preventing and limiting war, but also move us more effectively to outlawing war. This is a call to a new moral framework not the absence of moral guidance.
What if we improve the just war approach to make it more effective, such as the “ante” and “post” bellum norms?
Yes, these developments are better. However, it still continues the “just war” framework and the concept of justified war in the Catholic Church.
A just peace approach can accomplish the same thing as adding “ante” and “post” bellum norms but with the additional advantages of being more faithful to Christ, better at cultivating habits of just peace, less risk of abuse, and better at attending to, imagining, and building just peace consistently throughout all stages of conflict; not only before and after major violence.
Aren’t there still just wars?
St. Pope John Paul II said, “Violence is the enemy of justice.” In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, he further explicitly de-links the notion of war and justice calling us “to reject definitively the idea that justice can be sought through recourse to war.” Pope Francis has said there is “no justice in killing,” “faith and violence are incompatible, which means we should reject all violence” and we should not “bomb or make war” on ISIS.
Won’t the Church lose moral impact without the just war theory?
We have distorted our moral anchor by distancing ourselves from Jesus’ way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies. As part of this distortion, the just war approach obstructs the development of nonviolent conflict transformation and just peace by obstructing our attention, imagination, and will to commit to nonviolent practices. (see obstruction examples above)
If the Catholic Church were to shift to nonviolence and just peace, then international law would still have just war norms. So, in practice these two approaches would still be operating alongside of each other for now, but the Catholic Church would offer a more effective and faithful voice to the global strategies for engaging conflict. There are many examples of effective advocacy organizations who do not use a just war approach in their strategy.
Both Vatican II (Pastoral Constitution, par. 81) and Pope Paul VI called the Church to go further saying boldly it is “our clear duty to strain every muscle as we work for the time when all war can be completely outlawed.” In turn, a key goal is to outlaw war, not to legitimate or refine the criteria of war by using or teaching just war theory.
Should governments drop the just war theory? What about atrocities and the Responsibility to Protect?
In terms of governments, yes, they and the UN might still resort to military force, but the appeal from the conference is for the Catholic Church to make the shift to deeper nonviolence and just peace, and away from using just war theory. International law and states will likely still maintain “just war” norms for limiting war for now. In an effort to prevent atrocities, the Church played a role over the years in the establishment of such norms in international law.
Now the Church has a different role to play in the public arena – one that emphasizes the protection of life, not the right to go to war – one that may help the world embrace a positive peace and that reflects more clearly the message and mission of Jesus. If the Catholic Church were to make the shift to promoting consistently nonviolence and just peace, it would on a practical level liberate creative imagination and challenge the human community to commit human and financial resources to develop and commit to nonviolent practices and even draw society away from war sooner.
When a large-scale lethal threat is near and grave, the Church—as the Body of Christ—should urgently draw on just peace approach and advocate for nonviolent strategies for protection of those at risk. If governments or the UN decide, based on international law, for military action in such genuine atrocity cases, the Church’s role is to insist that the answer is not war or killing but protection and transformation. Further, the Church should point to the under investment by societies to adequately develop effective nonviolent tools for protecting communities and preventing violence, and urge that the world invest much more talent and treasure to design and scale up nonviolent strategies for protection.
The Church’s role would be to name the atrocities and the responding military action as a tragedy, a failure on the way of just peace, and inconsistent with human dignity and a culture of human rights for all. The Church’s role is to keep a just peace approach front and center in all such cases and advocate, even in the midst of violence, for nonviolent actions that will transform the violence. The Church would not be abandoning the responsibility to protect. It is shifting the focus on how we might protect communities and transform the conflict.
What about ruthless opponents, like Hitler and ISIS?
The effectiveness of nonviolence is not dependent on the ruthlessness of the opponent. The more ruthless, the wiser the strategy must be. Even ruthless opponents depend on sources of power to uphold their oppression. These sources of power (p. 5-6), such as material resources, persons with key skills and knowledge, numbers of cooperative people, intangible legitimacy, and sanction capacity, can be diminished by strategic nonviolence. For instance, Hitler, Milosevic, Suharto and Pinochet were involved in genocide, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity, but nonviolent resistance was effective against each of them.
Yes, there are atrocity situations such as the Holocaust in World War II and ISIS today. However, it’s important to note that nonviolent resistance did work against the Nazis in Norway and Denmark, but a broader, coordinated nonviolent strategy was not tried. World War II included massive killing of civilians by both sides, the first atomic bomb, and a nuclear arms race, i.e. the Cold War and many proxy wars. So, although short-term goods can be acknowledged, violence didn’t really do that well when we take a fuller, longer-view. More generally, we have also learned that nonviolent resistance has been twice as effective as violent resistance and at least ten times more likely to lead to durable democracies. The principle of this research, that all unjust regimes have pillars of support that can be diminished, applies more broadly than the cases they used.
Pope Francis did not support bombing or war against ISIS; he said that he was open to dialogue with them. There are many effective nonviolent ways to reduce the sources of power in ISIS.
Back to top
Photo of Cardinal Peter Turkson by Gerry Lee, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
1. UCP organizations include Nonviolent Peaceforce, Cure Violence, Operation Dove, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Peace Brigades International, etc.
 UCP organizations include Nonviolent Peaceforce, Cure Violence, Operation Dove, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Peace Brigades International, etc.
One sample formulation is: just cause- dignity, life, common good; right intention- positive peace; participatory process in decision-making; right relationship- vertical (between high visibility leaders, middle range, and grassroots) and horizontal (across but within a social level); reconciliation; restoration- material, psychological, spiritual; and sustainability.
 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1965, par. 82. Pope Paul VI, World Day of Peace Message, 1975.
 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 23: AAS 83 (1991), 820-821. Also in Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, Compendium of Social Doctrine, par. 438.
 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1965, par. 82. Pope Paul VI, World Day of Peace Message, 1975.