Catholic Social Teaching—The Eighth Principle

On the night of the first day of the new Eden, the risen Christ appeared to the disciples, stood in their midst and spoke the words of resurrection fulfillment: “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). Peace.

What does peace mean today: quiet, untroubled relaxation in an idyllic setting; a personal sense of integration and meaning in one’s life? Yes, that is an attractive description of peace that many in our Church and nation desire today.

But what about peace among us and between us? What about peace in our world and peace for the world? Did Jesus’ greeting of peace have anything to do with the world we live in?

Did Jesus’ peace mean the end to terror, war, and targeted assassinations; the unmasking of the myth of redemptive violence—that persistent lie that insists that violence is an answer to violence? Did the peace that Jesus envisioned require the repurposing of public resources away from the military industrial complex and instead toward those who are most vulnerable and at risk? Does the peace of Jesus have anything to do with creating the basic conditions for the full flourishing of the human community?

Jesus’ preaching hinged on his notion of the Kingdom of God, a reality where God reigned even in the midst of the Caesar’s reign of terror. His contemporaries could not have missed the political and societal implications of this Kingdom. Jesus, then, returns from the dead and begins Phase II of his Kingdom Project with this foundational statement: “Peace be with you.” In effect, he says: “What you thought had power—violence, hatred, weapons, cruelty, revenge, worldly power, and even death—actually has no power at all. Personal and public power begins with peace.”

Where in the Catholic community do we look today to find this public peace of Christ? Much of the spiritual programming of the Church speaks to peace as a personal endeavor nurtured by prayer and meditation. In response to this emphasis on internal peace, many Catholics assume that communal peace is best left to the politicians and the protectors of peace who serve in the armed forces. A richer read of Catholicism, specifically in its reflections on the social implications of the Gospel, insists that the trajectory of the Kingdom of God points beyond an inner, personal peace. Over the past 100 years, the best wisdom on how the Kingdom of God impacts how we live together has been found in Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

CST draws from a rich tradition of responding to social injustice in each generation. Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, CST took concrete shape as a set of seven principles gleaned from encyclicals and other episcopal statements. These principles proclaim the vision of the Kingdom of God in the face of the complex social problems. Abortion, human trafficking, globalization, environmental degradation, child labor, health care, faithful and active citizenship, and fair trade are a few current issues that are fundamentally challenged by the vision of CST. How we as North Americans live in the global community comes under harsh scrutiny when measured by these principles.

What CST has yet to fully embrace are Jesus’ final words: “Go into all the world” and bring peace, building the peaceful Kingdom of God (Mk 16:15; cf. Mt 28:19). CST has not yet reached its logical conclusion, the conclusion of the Risen Christ on that first Easter day, the conclusion of “peace.” Is there a principle in CST that does not depend on peace and at the same time promote that same peace? When the dignity of the unborn, the aged, and the infirm in our midst is disrespected, is it possible to see the humanity of people underneath 25,000 megaton bombs? When human labor is a commodity exploited for a $1 savings at Wal-Mart, are we likely to embrace sweatshop workers in Indonesia as our brothers and sisters in Christ? Or are they simply tools that support our affluence to be demonized and killed when they seek justice for their labor? Will terrorism ever cease when entire communities, ravaged by war and its effects, live in squalor and desperation? Will the goods of creation ever be justly distributed when billions are spent annually on the weapons of war?

CST begs for an eighth principle: peacemaking. Traditionally, the Catholic Church departed from its gospel stance of nonviolence with the legitimization of Christianity by the Roman Empire of Constantine. St. Augustine of Hippo, in his attempt to challenge unethical and unregulated warmongering, unwittingly entrenched the Church’s acceptance of violent statecraft with his theory for a just war. Sixteen centuries later, hundreds of wars fought, millions killed directly and indirectly, the Church has yet to break ties with myth of redemptive violence. Not one war fought has been “just” according to the Just War criteria (jus ad bellum and jus in bellothe right to go to war and the right conduct in war), and yet the followers of the nonviolent Christ continue to kill and be killed on the front lines, with the dutiful Church liturgically petitioning every week for their safety.

Politicians co-opt the language of a “Just War” and yet the Church lacks a clear statement against all war that eliminates divergent interpretations of what makes a war “just.” For example, the War in Iraq—a “just cause” according to former President Bush—publicly pitted prominent Catholic theologians and commentators against the Vatican’s principled condemnation of preventative war. In light of this penchant to manipulate the inner logic of the Just War Theory, the Spirit cries out for a stance on peacemaking that provides the prophetic clarity the world needs.

In 1983, the U.S. Bishops’ The Challenge of Peace began the process of challenging the militarism of the world. That document, giving little attention to peacemaking, critiqued the arms race and nuclear war through the lens of the Just War Theory. Twenty years later, the U.S. bishops, following the lead of Pope St. John Paul II, proclaimed that war is never the solution and that we must plot a path to peace. However, despite this positive movement, the Church still lacks a clear principle committing itself to peacemaking and nonviolence.

For many, a hard stance on peacemaking makes the Church irrelevant in conversations about international politics, easily brushed aside like the Quakers or the Mennonites. But to assume that our place in the U.S. and the world can be so easily ignored contradicts the assumption of CST that we have a voice because of our presence everywhere. We are too numerous to be ignored and we are no longer a disempowered, minority Church. We are politicians and lawyers, teachers and social workers, parents and priests. We are in every country and in every sphere of society. We are even 375,000 strong in the U.S. military. What we lack is a clear statement upon which to galvanize our people power.

Without a principle on peacemaking, all of CST limps. Without a commitment to peacemaking, children will continue to learn war as our society and Church offer few other relevant career paths for those who wish to solve international unrest. Without a call to heroic sacrifice for peace, our heroes will die on the battlefield, gun in one hand, rosary in their pockets. The time is right to invest our vast Catholic human, institutional, and financial resources towards the cause of peacemaking. No excuses, no exceptions, and no apologies. The witness over the past century of the nonviolent revolutions in India, Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and South Africa confirm the power of nonviolent resistance.

Christ’s words were “Peace be with you” but he was quick to show his disciples the scars that peacemaking brings.

[Jesus] showed them his hands and side . . . and said to them again,
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
(Jn 20:20–21)

Nonviolent resistance requires tremendous courage and belief in the rightness and effectiveness of nonviolence. People will die and there will be costs. But don’t people die now in our wars and are there not tremendous costs? Moreover, to actively engage in peacemaking will bring the wrath and violent opposition of the war industry and those who believe that violence and superior weaponry will save us. We must challenge the false gods of war and align ourselves with the nonviolent Jesus we worship on the Cross.

How to do this, though? Is it even possible? Once again, Jesus shows the way. In this same resurrection appearance, Jesus repeats:

“Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:21–23)

It is the Spirit who makes the impossible possible, who provides new language that can break down divisions. It is the Spirit who offers power to move beyond retributive justice and find instead ways to restore communities through reconciliation and healing. According to Jesus, it is the Spirit who is the source of the peaceable Kingdom. Jesus knew that the human community is consumed by its grievances, its need to punish, and its inability to see beyond the wrongs of the enemy. But Jesus rose above that cesspool of hostility and hatred. Forgive, he said, and the Spirit brings freedom and peace. Retain the sins of others and the cycle of retribution and retaliation goes on forever, unleashing a darkness that makes true peace unimaginable. When we hold onto our grievances and refuse to forgive, the best we can do is to stockpile weapons, lock up those who threaten us, and place our hopes in an uneasy truce. That world is governed by the principalities and powers of this present darkness. Jesus speaks of another way, a way of light, freedom, hope, and peace.

CST provides a spinal column for Catholics and many “people of good will” in confronting this heavy load of systemic sin. The burden is weighty and unmanageable apart from the yoke of Christ. But we believe that the Spirit of the Lord anoints our unwilling flesh and opens unforeseen vistas of international solidarity, reconciliation and cooperation. As Pope John XXIII wrote in Pacem in Terris, “Peace on earth, the profound aspiration of men and women of all times, can be firmly established and sustained only if the order established by God is firmly respected” (§1).

It is time to believe the words and witness of Christ, the Prince of Peace. To do so is to accept our commission from the Lord and be prophetically sent to stand for peace. To do so is to operate in the authority of the Cross as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. To do so is to trust that the same power that sustained Jesus through the worst this world had to offer still abides with us. Hear again his assurances:

“The Advocate that the Father will send in my name,
he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.
Peace I leave with you;
my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (Jn 14:26–27)

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Featured Image: Duccio di Buoninsegna, Christ Appears to the Apostles (1308–1311); courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


David O'Brien

David M. O’Brien is an adjunct professor at St. Leo University and President of the American Institute for Democracy, Justice and Human Rights. He is also Director of Faith Formation at St. Timothy Parish (Lady Lake, FL) and author of There’s a Beer in My Handbag: Unusual Thoughts about Everyday Faith.

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