Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Christ our Hope: Part 6 - Witness of the Contemporary Church

This is Part 6 of a series entitled Christ our Hope in the Face of Violence and our Witness to Nonviolent Love. Part 1 served as an introduction and Part 2 considered God as a God of Peace in the Old Testament. Part 3 and Part 4 began to consider what Christ has to say on the issue of violence and war and . Part 5 looked at the witness of early Christianity and the changes which took place after Constantine along with the thought of Augustine and Aquinas on the issue.


After Vatican II, The Catholic Church adopted and updated the thought of Augustine and Aquinas in the Catechism of the Catholic Church officially teaching the just war theory,[1]but, as we previously mentioned, the Catechism also speaks of the evangelical witness of those who fully answer Jesus’ call and respond nonviolently. Furthermore, we know that the just war theory was one of the two most controversial and debated items in the Catechism.[2]Here, in the context of and discussion about the just war theory in the Catechism, we see the reappearance of a dilemma, an apparent dichotomous paradox within Church tradition. God is perfectly merciful. God is perfectly just. We can see this apparent contradiction in the words of each of the last two Popes. Pope John Paul II writes, “‘legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the State’. Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life.”[3] However, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Loving the enemy is the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution,’…The revolution of love… Here is the heroism of the “lowly” who believe in God’s love and spread it, even at the cost of their lives!”[4]

What shall we make of this? We have seen already that Jesus clearly and irrevocably taught his disciples love of neighbor and nonviolent resistance. He showed us, by example, not to return evil with evil, but to love, and to forgive, and to pray. We have seen that the first Christians received Jesus’ call to holiness openly and without excuse or limit. For them Jesus’ teachings were not mere platitudes, but were life giving. We have also seen, in a unique way in the past one hundred years, what horrid evil and destruction mankind is capable of. Humanity has been further convinced of the apparent necessity of violent force to defend those who cannot defend themselves and to work for justice. In this respect we can quote the ancient Roman maxim as being accurate current American sensibility: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

Forced into unease by this apparent contradiction, we shall attempt to accept the challenge put forth by the Church in Gaudium et Spes, and echoed in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: we shall consider war with a new attitude.[5]

Before attempting a synthesis and determining a firm direction from which we can develop this new attitude, we would be remiss if we did not consider the recent Magisterial statements on war, peace, and violence. The diachronic response of the Magisterium to the atrocities of the last century has overwhelmingly begun to move in thought towards nonviolence: Pope Benedict XV, writing during WWI, speaks confidently that injustices can be rectified without violence and calls on all involved to lay down their weapons.[6] In 1944 Pope Pius XII proclaims, “The Church desires to win over peoples and to educate them to virtue and right social living, not by means of arms but with the truth. For ‘the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty to God.’”[7] Pope Paul VI gives us a hint as to what alternative weapons we might employ:

“It is necessary before all else to provide Peace with other weapons - weapons different from those destined to kill and exterminate mankind. What is needed above all are moral weapons, those which give strength and prestige to international law...It is no longer a simple, ingenuous and dangerous utopia. It is the new Law of mankind which goes forward, and which arms Peace with a formidable principle: "You are all brethren."[8]

Additionally, predating, but adding to the thought of Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes condemns the notion of peace through an arms race[9] and teaches, “the Council wishes passionately to summon Christians to cooperate, under the help of Christ the author of peace, with all men in securing among themselves a peace based on justice and love and in setting up the instruments of peace.”[10]

Based on the above evidence, a shift in Church understanding of violence and war becomes evident. In light of teachings of our popes, no longer can we speak of a Christian war at all, at least not one which implies violent weapons aimed at the destruction of men. What might this new type of war be like? Is it even reasonable? Before we more fully concern ourselves with these questions, we must give heed to the opposite perspective.

[1] CCC 2309.

[2] Palermo, 2005.

[3] John Paul II, Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (1995), 55.

[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Feb. 18, 2007.

[5] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, (Rome:the Holy See, 1965), 80; CSDC, 497.

[6] Benedict XV, Encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, (1914), 4.

[7] Pius XII, Encyclical Summi Maeroris, (1950), 12.

[8] Paul VI, “The Real Weapons of Peace,” World Day of Peace Message, Jan 1, 1976.

[9] Gaudium et Spes, 81

[10] Ibid., 77.