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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mt. 5:9). How could this saying, which is a summons to work in the immense field of peace, find such a powerful echo in the human heart if it did not correspond to an irrepressible yearning and hope dwelling within us? And why else would peacemakers be called children of God, if not because God is by nature the God of peace?
    — John Paul II, World Day of Peace message, 2004

By Mark E. Rondeau

Should members of the Catholic hierarchy, including the pope, confine themselves to issues of piety and salvation and leave questions of war and peace to those with the training and responsibility to deal with them?

The answer is a resounding ‘no.’

As in the beatitude above, Jesus dealt directly with issues of non-violence and forgiveness. So the argument made by some that issues of war and peace are outside the jurisdiction and competence of Church leaders is just plain wrong. Catholics believe that human beings are created in the image of God. War destroys human beings. What topic could demand more urgent attention from religious leaders than the wholesale destruction of human beings in war?

The past four years have given Catholics direct evidence that our popes are quite competent indeed to make judgments in this field.

Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq both Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, accurately assessed the recklessness of the undertaking and predicted the misery and chaos it would cause. In this they were both speaking from Church teaching and developing it.

In this time of violence and war, Catholics and others of goodwill should become familiar with the treasure trove of recent papal teaching on non-violence and peace.

The 40 World Day of Peace messages issued by the reigning pope each New Year’s Day since 1968 both explore and develop the Church’s teaching on these topics. They reflect the mature wisdom of three pastors who in different ways and in different nations directly experienced the devastation of World War II as young men.

Pope Paul VI, who as a young priest experienced the degradation of the Italian people by war, created the Day of Peace in the hope that Catholics and others would observe it “as a hope and as a promise” that “peace may dominate the development of events to come.”

The Day of Peace messages can be downloaded from the official Vatican Web site, Taken together, they total more than 135,000 words — more than the 16 documents of Vatican II combined.

The themes of the messages include human rights, dialogue, non-violence, forgiveness, justice, the right to life, respect for the environment, and economic development and solidarity with the poor.

While the messages are just a part of a comprehensive body of papal teachings on non-violence and peace, they provide an excellent overview of them. In the words of John Paul II, who authored 27 of the messages, they provide “a synthesis of teaching about peace which is a kind of  primer on this fundamental theme: a primer easy to understand by those who are well-disposed, but at the same time quite demanding for anyone concerned for the future of humanity.” (2004)

In this spirit, let’s see what the messages have to say about fundamental issues related to violence, war, and peace in our time.

• Isn’t violence sometimes necessary? Can’t it at times solve difficult problems?

“To attain the good of peace there must be a clear and conscious acknowledgment that violence is an unacceptable evil and that it never solves problems,” John Paul II writes in his 2005 message. “Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.”

• What is the popes’ attitude toward war? Church leaders have certainly supported some wars in the past. What about the Just War doctrine?

The popes in their World Day of Peace messages teach that all people are brothers and sisters, made in the image of God with an inviolable dignity. Life is sacred. “If we base the logic of our activity on the sacredness of life, war is virtually disqualified as a normal and habitual means of asserting rights and so of ensuring peace,” Paul VI writes in his 1977 message.

The popes do not once mention the Just War doctrine in their messages. They do not challenge it, but they clearly don’t see war as a tool for justice; rather, it makes most everything worse, creating new injustices in its wake. Their concern is with building peace, not with cobbling together rationales for launching wars.

John Paul II makes no distinction about why a war is begun when he writes in his 1999 message that “war is the failure of all true humanism.”

“Recent history clearly shows the failure of recourse to violence as a means for resolving political and social problems,” he continues. “War destroys, it does not build up; it weakens the moral foundations of society and creates further divisions and long-lasting tensions.”

Wars often result in further wars, John Paul II writes in his 2000 message, because “they fuel deep hatreds, create situations of injustice, and trample upon people's dignity and rights.”

“War is a defeat for humanity,” he adds. “Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed.”

The popes in their World Day of Peace messages frequently mention the terrible destructiveness of modern weapons, including the specter of a nuclear war. This no doubt feeds their basic presumption against recourse to war.

“Is it not necessary to give everything in order to avoid war, even the ‘limited war’ thus euphemistically called by those who are not directly concerned in it?” John Paul II asks in his 1983 message. (Emphasis in original). Especially “given the evil that every war represents in [the] price that has to be paid in human lives, in suffering, in the devastation of what would be necessary for human life and development?” 

• Is there any situation when the popes would support a war?

When a civilian population risks being overcome by attacks from an unjust aggressor, and political negotiations and nonviolent means of defense have failed, “it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor,” John Paul II writes in his 2000 message.

However, “these measures...must be limited in time and precise in their aims. They must be carried out in full respect for international law, guaranteed by an authority that is internationally recognized and, in any event, never left to the outcome of armed intervention alone.”

In his 2002 message, issued just a few short months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 John Paul II writes that a right exists to defend oneself against terrorism.

However, even the mass murder of civilians by terrorists does not justify indiscriminate behavior in response. The ends sought and means used must be in keeping with moral and legal limits, he writes. Only guilty individuals must be singled out, not the nation, ethnic group, or religion to which they belong.

“International cooperation in the fight against terrorist activities must also include a courageous and resolute political, diplomatic, and economic commitment to relieving situations of oppression and marginalization which facilitate the designs of terrorists,” he adds. “The recruitment of terrorists in fact is easier in situations where rights are trampled upon and injustices tolerated over a long period of time.”

• The World Day of Peace messages added together would make up a good-sized book. What else do they say that is relevant to today?

In their messages, the popes present peace as a demanding and creative process, ever coming into being and requiring constant dedication and striving. This couldn’t be further from the mentality that seeks to provide a “quick fix” to problems through violence.

“Peace is an equilibrium that is based on motion and continually gives forth energy of spirit and action; it is intelligent and living courage,” Paul VI writes in his 1978 message.

Areas where energy, intelligence, and courage can be applied toward peace include dialogue, education, international law, international organizations, disarmament, and economic justice.

John Paul II devoted two of his messages to dialogue: in 1983, Dialogue for Peace, A Challenge for Our Time; and in 2001, Dialogue Between Cultures for a Civilization of Love and Peace.

“The experience of history, even recent history, shows in fact that dialogue is necessary for true peace,” he writes in the 1983 message. “It would be easy to find cases where the conflict seemed fatal, but where war was avoided or abandoned, because the parties believed in the value of dialogue and practiced this dialogue, in the course of long and honest discussions.”

Education for peace is the topic of three World Day of Peace messages: 1979, To Reach Peace, Teach Peace; 1995, Women: Teachers of Peace; and 2004, An Ever Timely Commitment: Teaching Peace.

The pope leads the world’s oldest international organization, so it should be no surprise that the World Day of Peace messages strongly support international law. “Peace and international law are closely linked to each other,” John Paul II writes. “The gradual and constant development of an internationally recognized legal order could well provide one of the surest bases for the peace and orderly progress of the human family.”  (2004, 1991)

The popes also speak approvingly — with some qualifications — of the United Nations. John Paul II in his 1998 message envisions a reform in which the UN could become a moral center and a true “family of nations.”

The popes in their World Day of Peace messages repeatedly condemn the nuclear arms race. Disarmament is thus another area in which energy, intelligence, and courage can be put to work for peace.

In his first World Day of Peace message in 2006, Benedict XVI  calls for “a progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament.” He notes sadly, however, that the international disarmament process “is bogged down in general indifference.”

Benedict XVI also condemns the continuing growth of military spending as well as the ever-flourishing arms trade: “How can there ever be a future of peace when investments are still made in the production of arms and in research in developing new ones?”

The popes see economic justice as another building block for a better world. The gap between rich and poor is growing, even in the richest nations. Destitution is an insult to human dignity and a hidden, but real, threat to peace, John Paul II writes in his 1987 message. “Can true peace exist when men, women, and children cannot live in full human dignity?”

• But I’m just an average person holding down an average job, what can I do for peace?

At the end of the day, peace comes back to choices made by each and every individual. The popes see individual sin as the root of violence in the world: “It is above all the hearts and attitudes of people that must be changed, and this needs a renewal, a conversion of individuals,” John Paul II writes in his 1986 message.

So, peace is not ultimately as much about social structures — important as they are — as about people, people who become instruments of God’s peace. We can all be peacemakers. What John Paul II in his 2003 message calls “gestures of peace” are indispensable in creating a “culture of peace.”

“Gestures of peace are possible when people appreciate fully the community dimension of their lives, so that they grasp the meaning and consequences of events in their own communities and in the world,” he writes. (Emphasis in original). “Gestures of peace create a tradition and a culture of peace.”


For more, go directly to the source. The clarity and wisdom of the messages will quickly reward your efforts. Any Catholic who reads through several World Day of Peace messages senses their prophetic power quite clearly. They are not ecclesiastical boilerplate; rather they are a personal call to radical discipleship, a passionate plea to follow Christ on the difficult road of non-violence, forgiveness, and love.

* This article was written for and submitted to The Sign of Peace magazine in May, 2007, per agreement with one of the magazine's editors. It did not run, however, for reasons I haven't determined. Still, Sign of Peace is a good and prophetic publication — check it out.

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