Photo: L'Osservatore Romano


(Summer, 2006. Unpublished)

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mt 5:9)

By Mark E. Rondeau

Conservative Catholics in the U.S. often portray strict adherence to Catholic doctrine — almost exclusively in regard to sex — as “countercultural.” They frequently point to John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” as an exciting and compelling line of argument supporting this stance.

I agree. I would argue further, however, that we live in a society also dominated by pagan attitudes toward violence, war, power, and money, which also demand a countercultural stance.

Indeed, we live in a nation which spends more on the military than the rest of the world combined, in a nation suffering the consequences of electing the most militaristic president in its history. War, militarism, environmental degradation, growing income disparity, and a culture of dishonesty may soon eclipse the breakdown of the family in poisonous consequences for our society.

Fortunately, we have John Paul II’s comprehensive and incisive — although largely overlooked — “Theology of Peace” to guide us in taking a countercultural stand in these areas as well.

Where can we find this theology of peace? Every New Years Day since 1968 the reigning pope has observed the World Day of Peace by issuing a message devoted to peace. Topics of the messages have included human rights, dialogue between cultures, economic justice, the need for forgiveness, education for peace, individual responsibility for peace, and respect for the environment. The popes — Paul VI and Benedict XVI, as well as John Paul II — present peace as a demanding and creative process, ever coming into being and requiring constant striving.

Taken as a whole, these messages display a remarkable level of originality, passion, and geopolitical knowledge and sophistication. Downloaded into one file, they total nearly 130,000 words — more than the 16 documents of Vatican II combined.

John Paul II called the messages “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.”

Catholics — particularly in the U.S. — need to begin studying and absorbing this theology of peace. For one thing, it has the power to help us gain perspective on the climate of fear, distrust, polarization, violence, and war in which we live. More importantly, peace is not a secondary issue for Catholics. Rather, peace is the oldest and arguably most fundamental “pro-life” issue.

According to the World Day of Peace messages, the fundamentals of peace rest on the fundamentals of our faith, what we believe is the truth about God and humanity: Life is sacred. All people are brothers and sisters, made in the image of God with an inviolable dignity. All have been touched in some way by the redemptive act of Christ.

“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 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.”

Love is the only force capable of transforming both individuals and societies, John Paul writes, “the only force capable of directing the course of history in the way of goodness and peace.” Only a world community in which a “civilization of love” is established will be able to enjoy real and lasting peace.

This is not airy talk. The popes present a broad, incisive, and demanding vision of what peace requires. For example, Paul VI calls abortion a crime against peace in his 1977 message, because “every crime against life is a blow to peace.” In his 1999 message, John Paul states that the right to life and human dignity must be respected in every situation: “To choose life involves rejecting every form of violence: the violence of poverty and hunger, which afflicts so many human beings; the violence of armed conflict; the violence of criminal trafficking in drugs and arms; the violence of mindless damage to the natural environment. In every circumstance, the right to life must be promoted and safeguarded with appropriate legal and political guarantees, for no offense against the right to life, against the dignity of any single person, is ever unimportant.”

In their messages, the popes support international efforts to promote human rights, and they generally support the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. John Paul was ahead of his time on the environment, noting in his 1990 message, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation,” the threat posed by global warming.

Areas where Catholics can apply energy, intelligence, and courage in building peace include dialogue, education, international law, international organizations, disarmament, and economic justice. What John Paul II in his 2003 message calls “gestures of peace” are indispensable in creating a “culture of peace.”

Every time the U.S. approaches a war, Catholics and others trot out the “just war” doctrine, and not surprisingly the war at hand is found to meet the criteria. So it is important to note that 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.

“Recent history clearly shows the failure of recourse to violence as a means for resolving political and social problems,” John Paul writes in his 1999 message. “War destroys, it does not build up; it weakens the moral foundations of society and creates further divisions and long-lasting tensions.”

The popes do not take an entirely pacifist position, however. In his 2002 message, issued just a few short months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, John Paul 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. In the long run, justice is important, but love is indispensable. Justice must find its fulfillment in charity or it may not be able to free itself from resentment and hatred. “There is no peace without forgiveness!” John Paul writes in his 2004 message. “In the end love will be victorious!”

Comparing the Catholic theology of peace with current policies of the U.S. government is instructive, particularly since so many Republican politicians exploit carefully sleeted slices of Catholic teaching at election time.

For instance, President George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 in part by truncating and distorting John Paul II’s vision of a “culture of life.” In the Bush culture of life the only issues that matter are abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and high-profile cases of euthanasia. Not qualifying as life issues are war, torture, environmental degradation, the death penalty, and poverty.

As is well known, John Paul II strongly and clearly opposed Gulf War II before it began in early 2003. The Bush administration ignored him. By his last World Day of Peace Message in 2005, John Paul could write: “How can we not think with profound regret of the drama unfolding in Iraq, which has given rise to tragic situations of uncertainty and insecurity for all?”

John Paul notes in his 2004 message that in the fight against terrorism international law needs to develop new instruments with effective means to monitor, prevent, or suppress terrorist crimes.

“In any event, democratic governments know well that the use of force against terrorists cannot justify a renunciation of the principles of the rule of law ,” he adds. “Political decisions would be unacceptable were they to seek success without consideration for fundamental human rights, since the end never justifies the means.”

From late 2001 to mid-2006 the Bush administration did not observe the Geneva Conventions in regard to the treatment of prisoners of war, holding hundreds of detainees without charges. Only a U.S. Supreme Court decision has forced the government to yield somewhat on this recently. Whether the administration will fully comply with the court ruling and whether the U.S. will continue to torture some terrorism suspects, especially those held in secret prisons in Europe, are open questions.

No wonder the Bush administration not only opposes the International Criminal Court but also has cut military aid to nations which have not exempted U.S. citizens from being brought before this court.

Then there is the issue of environmental degradation. Bush, his administration, and his allies still have not fully acknowledged the reality of global warming. If U.S. and world policy and behavior do not change soon, the threat to human life from terrorism may eventually seem minor compared to the reality of climate change.

Writing on “the violence of poverty,” John Paul laments the increasing gap between rich and poor, even in rich nations such as the U.S. He asked if true peace can exist when people “cannot live in full human dignity.”

The condition of this dignity in the U.S. is shaky on several fronts. More than one in three Americans — 37 percent of all people in the U.S. — are officially considered to be living in poverty at least two months out of each year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2004. The number of poor Americans suffering from “food insecurity” — not enough food for basic nourishment — was 38.2 million in 2004, up from 31 million in 1999, according to the Food Research and Action Center. In 2004 nearly 46 million Americans did not have health care coverage, a number which is expected to continue to rise.

At the other end of the economic spectrum things have been quite different. Between 1979 and 2002 the average after-tax income of the top 1 percent of the population rose 111 percent. This compares to just 15 percent for the middle fifth of the population, and a measly rise of just 5 percent in after-tax income for the poorest fifth of the population, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

This gap has increased tremendously in the last few years. From 2003 to 2004, the average incomes of the bottom 99 percent of households grew by less than 3 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, the average incomes of the top one percent of households experienced a jump of almost 17 percent, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, citing research by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.

Despite all this, the Bush administration and its Republican majorities in Congress support the continuance of tax cuts highly favorable to the rich. They also continue to oppose raising the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour, where it has been since 1997. Rather, in an election-year ploy this summer, House Republicans cynically attached an increase in the minimum wage to a huge tax break for the very wealthy. Predictably, the measure went down to defeat.

These facts should raise questions for U.S. Catholics active in political life: are policies of militarism and nationalism conducive to a culture of life? Similarly, are unregulated markets and economic Social Darwinism serving human dignity? Are they about freedom or are they really about giving more to the haves at the expense of everybody else?

In all this, moral deficiency leads to practical deficiency. John Paul II was the real realist when it came to Gulf War II, not George W. Bush. Similarly, Bush’s policies of war, torture, indefinite detention, and disregard for international law have swelled the ranks of anti-U.S. terrorists, not given a quick victory in the “War on Terror.” When John Paul recognized the threat of global warming in 1990 he was being infinitely more realistic than George W. Bush, who to this day will not accept the full implications of this phenomenon. And so on...

Still, a puzzling and persistent question remains. Why does this theology of peace — even as explained, explored, and promoted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — seemingly have so little impact on U.S. culture?

This is a complicated question which probably could be answered in a number of ways. Sweeping generalizations are dangerous. Still, I would like to suggest that intellectuals on both the Catholic left and right have reasons to ignore this theology or to trim it to fit their political biases and those of their audiences.

Catholic liberals who agree with the theology of peace may be reluctant to wholeheartedly endorse and amplify it for fear of crediting the authority of the pope to teach. What then would become of these liberals’ defense of gay marriage or access to abortion on demand, not to mention their desire for change in the Church?

The position of many conservative Catholics is more tenuous, even hypocritical. They will hang on every word of the pope when it comes to abortion, contraception, or euthanasia and hammer those who disagree. But you won’t hear them quoting the popes on peace or economic justice. Is the nationalistic, militaristic, and pro-market orthodoxy of the Republican Party their real guiding star? Or is it more of a co-religion for secular life?

Catholic political conservatives may correctly argue that this papal Theology of Peace is not morally binding and that people of goodwill can disagree on how to achieve desirable ends.

I would counter, however, that national policies of unprovoked war, torture, disrespect for law, environmental degradation, economic injustice, and bald-faced dishonesty are in fact sinful. They provide a solid infrastructure for a Culture of Death. Politics is not some sort of game beyond good and evil. Sins of power and greed are real, and they ruin lives and kill people.

Mark E. Rondeau is a freelance writer and editor who lives in North Adams, Mass. He has reported for four diocesan newspapers and been published in national Catholic magazines. The World Day of Peace Messages can be found on the Vatican Website,

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