Pope Francis’s peacebuilding pedagogy:
A commentary on his 2017 World Day of Peace message

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 represents only 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.

So let’s say that the Holy Father indeed responds to that appeal further not only by issuing an encyclical but by moving church teaching away from a “just war” to a just peace framework. What will prevent such an encyclical from going the way of Humanae Vitae – Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on contraception, which broad swaths of the Catholic world have not “received” except with controversy or even cynicism? Fortunately, Pope Francis’s WDP message itself charts a path toward church-wide reception. 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.

Anyone who reads Catholic church documents learns to recognize a certain kind of savvy  rhetorical strategy. The Vatican’s carefully finessed language may sometimes be frustrating in its nuance, but can also serve to balance considerations and forge consensus in a complex global community. Pope Francis thus exercises an appropriate Vatican savvy as he alludes to the possible use of “just war” criteria in 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 Vatican and 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 of the Church to “limit the use of force by the application of moral norms” (and indeed helped build the architecture for international law along the way) this sentence might seem to validate its continued use. And 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, Francis is not done here.

While the space for Church engagement in international diplomacy and public policy work remains in a mutually supportive relationship with active nonviolence, what Pope Francis does next in section 6 of his WDP message is breathtaking. He insists that “Jesus himself offers a ‘manual’ for this [integrated] 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 the neo-scholastic mode of Catholic moral deliberation ascendant from the 17th century until the Second Vatican Council. Drawing on St. Thomas Aquinas’s carefully reasoned reflection on the natural law, the Manualist mode sought to rival Enlightenment rationalism. Whatever its virtues, it tended therefore 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 the Sermon on the Mount 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. Just as the phrase “to be or not to be” has circulated in popular culture among many people who know it comes from Shakespeare but have never seen Hamlet, Jesus’ injunctions to “turn the other cheek” or “go the second mile” have taken on a life of their own. Many people – certainly in the culture at large but even among devout Catholics – may vaguely associate such phrases with Jesus but have never studied the Sermon on the Mount carefully. Serious biblical exegesis recognizes these teachings as paradigmatic models 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 unformed, uninformed, assumption of many is going to be that practicing the Sermon on the Mount in public affairs is a lofty but idealistic notion, no more.

Pope Francis certainly knows better. In section 3, he characterizes Jesus’ message as a “radically positive approach,” not just a negative refusal of violence. He then goes on to pair Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies with his stopping the 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’” and the “magna carta of Christian nonviolence.” Then in section 4 he outlines examples of how the “decisive and consistent practice of nonviolence has produced effective results” in campaigns by the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi, the Muslim Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Christian Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Liberian women led by Leymah Gbowee, and in the fall of Communist regimes in 1989 Europe, where Pope John Paul II himself played a role.

Amplifying Pope Francis’s message by tirelessly recounting these and many more such histories is obviously one key way to invite a wide reception of gospel nonviolence. Following the exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount by New Testament scholar Walter Wink and Christian ethicist Glen Stassen, another key will be to explain the social dynamics of active nonviolence by 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 anxious parishioners concerned about their nations’ security take a second look at Pope Francis’s WDP message now – and eventual encyclical later – I think 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 “horrifying world war [being] fought piecemeal” in the 21st century has resulted from violence upon violence. 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” rather than any “cure for our broken world” (section 2). That is why “the force of arms is deceptive” (section 4). Gospel nonviolence is the truly revolutionary alternative, therefore, because “responding to evil with good” rather than “succumbing to evil” by responding in kind means “thereby breaking the chain of injustice” (section 3).

Pursuing this line of reasoning should widen reception of the magisterium’s growing body of teaching on gospel nonviolence because the diagnosis of vicious cycles is something that practitioners of “just war” theory can agree upon. (No one these days expects any war to end all wars, after all.) Even anxious security-minded parishioners who are not well-versed in the theory, but expect the Church to allow wars in their name one way or another, will be more likely to give gospel nonviolence a hearing if the argument is not about whether the causes that are dear to their heart are ever just. Politicians often trump up support for dubious causes, of course, and one tact for peacebuilders is to deconstruct their jingoistic claims. But those who argue that war can never be just are unwise to imply that deeply-held causes are never just. Instead we will be wise to stake our argument on the diagnosis of vicious cycles: In war, even winners lose. Even supposedly just wars plant the seeds of new resentments, and thus new rounds of mutually reinforcing injustice.

Such an argument might seem a discordantly utilitarian one for peacebuilders, yet it was Jesus’ own pedagogy in the Sermon on the Mount itself. As a leading advocate of “just peacemaking” theory, ethicist Glen Stassen demonstrated that Jesus’ teachings in most of Matthew 5-7 come as a series of 14 triads that 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 some vicious cycle, then offer a “transforming initiative.” His focus was not on dismantling traditional righteousness per se; a standard teaching such as “eye for an eye” was commendable as far as it went – in this case by limiting violence. But because traditional righteousness did not go far enough, Jesus’ focus was on “transforming initiatives” such as those paradigmatic acts of active nonviolence that resist evil but not in kind. (Also see here.)

The space that the Church has long hoped “just war” theory would fill does need filling. Educating more and more Catholics about the demonstrable power of active nonviolence and training them in its practice will certainly be a major part of the work toward reception. But “just war” theory has long seemed necessary because it offers a form of discourse, 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 in order to engage in those “continuing efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms” as they participate in “the work of international institutions” or contribute “to the drafting of legislation at all levels.”

Pope Francis sees a “natural and necessary complement” between “peacebuilding through active nonviolence” and this continuing engagement. Many Catholic peacebuilders see “just war” theory as a distraction if not an obstacle to both. If we follow Jesus’ lead, however, 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 and 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. If we expect the pope to take down the “just war” theory at one fell swoop in an eventual encyclical we may be inviting disappointment. 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 other 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 best and quite realistic hope is that “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). Reception has obviously not been unanimous – how could anything be unanimous in the world’s largest religious body? – but it has been significant enough to move the public-policy needle in many countries.

Pope Francis’s 2017 World Day of Peace message, and section 6 in particular, are exactly what that process is going to look like. The job of Catholic peacebuilders is to amplify the signals.

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3 Responses to Pope Francis’s peacebuilding pedagogy:
A commentary on his 2017 World Day of Peace message

  1. Judy Coode says:

    Thanks for this, Gerald. Great food for thought.

  2. John Donaghy says:

    This commentary has been very helpful in understanding what might be going on in the thinking of Pope Francis.

    I’d suggest that it might also be useful to look on this message with Latin American eyes. Though he uses the term differently than Don Helder Camara, “spiral of violence” is a term that, for Dom Helder, deals with the problem of violence and injustice in a creative way, trying to understand violence in its social and political context. The text in Spanish uses the term “espirales de conflictos”.

    Also, a Latin American approach to nonviolence does not deny the justice of the cause but questions the violence. Notably, Monseñor warned about the “mística de la violencia”.

  3. David Helmuth says:

    One of the best posts I have ever read on the on going conversation and the challenge to the “just war” approach to war and peace. Thanks so much Gerald for sharing this.!!

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