Powers: Catholic social doctrine is ‘just peace’

In the aftermath of a conference titled “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence,” sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International, attendees released a statement saying that “there is no ‘just war.’”

“Too often the ‘just war’ theory has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war,” attendees wrote in an appeal “to the Catholic Church to recommit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence.” “Suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.” “Just war,” the conditions of which are defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2309), has been the tradition of the Church since at least the time of St. Augustine (d. 430). Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Gerard F. Powers, professor of the Practice of Catholic Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, for his take on the statement that garnered many headlines.

Our Sunday Visitor: What were the themes discussed and debated at the nonviolence conference in Rome?

Gerard F. Powers: There are two things going on here. One is a more narrow debate — it’s a very important debate but a narrower, age-old debate — about whether the Church should be like the Quakers and the Mennonites and be principled pacifists versus upholding the “just war” tradition, which has been the teaching of the Church since at least Augustine. Part of this conversation, it seems to me, was reviving that debate about which of the two traditions, both of which are legitimate, should prevail in Church teaching. And the conference clearly calls for an end to the teaching of the “just war” tradition and for a focus on principled nonviolence as the Christian imperative. That’s a very important debate, one which I don’t think is going to be resolved by this conference or anytime soon. The second thing that’s going on is a wider debate about what it means to be a “peace Church” — and I don’t mean to become Quakers and Mennonites — but what it means to be a Church whose sense of Christian vocation is that we are called to be peace-builders. The pope uses the word peacemakers. I think that is central to our Christian vocation, (and), like Catholic social teaching generally, it’s one of the best-kept secrets of the Church.

OSV: Conference attendees proposed that a “just peace” theory replace that of “just war.” How might that work in conjunction with the right, acknowledged by Church leaders and tradition, of nations to defend themselves when it may become necessary?

Powers: When you look at official Catholic social teaching, that amazing body of work, you have a “just peace” theory. The vision, the principles, the criteria for moral action constitute the substance of a “just peace” theory, in my view. The central challenge is for the Catholic community to take seriously the Church’s social teaching. We really don’t, as a Catholic community, act in our daily life as if peace-building is central to our Christian vocation. That, I think, is the fundamental problem.

OSV: How might the Church overcome that problem?

Powers: There’s no easy answer. Every aspect of the Catholic community’s life needs to integrate Catholic social teaching and peace-building. (But) I don’t think the solution is to just stop teaching the “just war” tradition. I would argue that, especially since the Second Vatican Council, but going back even further, official Church teaching and practice have embraced a very restrictive interpretation of the “just war,” which says that you can only justify war for extraordinarily strong reasons. And that’s very different from the much more permissive approach which uses “just war” to make it easy to justify war. That’s what the Pax Christi statement is focusing on — that too often the “just war” theory has been misused to endorse, rather than to prevent or limit war. And that’s absolutely true. But that hasn’t been how the Catholic Church has used or taught the tradition, or applied the tradition in most of the past century.

OSV: Can you give me an example?

Powers: The Iraq War in 2003 is a great example. The Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops — and virtually every Catholic bishops’ conference in the world — were opposed to the war. They often used, as the U.S. bishops did, the highly restrictive approach to “just war” to counter the Bush administration’s highly permissive approach. Just because the “just war” has been misused, as it was in that case by the Bush administration, doesn’t mean that you have to throw out the whole tradition. It was used correctly, I think, by the Vatican (and) by the bishops’ conferences around the world as a form of conflict prevention. Pacifist arguments were not a major part of that debate.

OSV: The statement by Pax Christi also said that, “suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.” Would you accept that statement?

Powers: That’s not necessarily the case. I think the highly restrictive interpretation of “just war” compels you to find nonviolent alternatives to resolve conflicts because it’s hard to justify using military force under modern Church teaching. The highly restrictive interpretation is not opposed to peace-building, but presumes a need to continue to develop our teaching and especially our practices of peace-building.

OSV: Beyond the narrower question of “just war” versus pacifism, what do you think the other issues are?

Powers: The bigger challenge is to become more of a peace-building Church by taking seriously our rich Catholic social teaching and reflecting on it in light of what we can learn from the amazing peace-building practices around the world. The Catholic community around the world … is doing courageous work for peace in some of the world’s most war-torn places, but it tends to be unheralded, unknown and underanalyzed. We need to have a lot better understanding of what the Catholic community is doing in the area of peace-building writ large. The peace-building that we’re talking about is not just the nonviolent civil resistance of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, but it is a much broader set of principles and practices related to the hard work of finding nonmilitary alternatives to conflict in the world — through diplomacy, strengthening international law and international institutions, working for economic justice, working on environmental concerns. The Vatican conference addressed many of these broader aspects of peace-building.

OSV: The members at the conference encouraged Pope Francis to write his next encyclical on nonviolence and “just peace.” What would you want to see in such a document?

Powers: I think a document that would reflect on the Church’s long-standing teaching on war and peace and peace-building in light of current challenges would be very helpful. It might be framed as peace-building is our vocation as Catholic Christians.

Gretchen R. Crowe is editor-in-chief of OSV Newsweekly.