Non-violence and justice


As early Christians appreciated, Jesus witnessed and preached nonviolence. Love your enemy. Forgive. Be reconciled. Turn the other cheek. Love. “Do this in memory of me” means offering your life for others. Jesus is “the Prince of Peace. “ The Beatitudes are a blueprint for nonviolent peacemaking.

The Church alliance with Constantine introduced a moral complication: Christians were obliged to be peaceful but the state was responsible for “the tranquility of order.” Given wars, Augustine fashioned just war norms, consulted since when convenient and ignored when not.

Gospel nonviolence retreated to desert monasteries, reappearing, most notably, with Francis of Assisi, Protestant peace churches, and the modern Catholic Worker movement. After World War II, during which U.S. Bishops advised that Catholics could not be conscientious objectors, Hiroshima, the emergence of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and Pax Christi, John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, the Second Vatican Council’s challenges to nuclear arms, Pope Paul VI’s condemnation of war, and wide moral condemnation of the Vietnam war all contributed to a renewed recognition of Gospel nonviolence, which the U.S. Bishops recognized in their 1983 Challenge of Peace pastoral. John Paul II espoused just war norms but justified no wars on his watch. Many contemporary moralists consider the inevitable totality of modern wars to preclude a just war.

Unfortunately, Church leadership does not teach or preach Gospel nonviolence and, while declaring wars violative of just war norms (John Paul II dozens of times in the lead up to the Iraq War), the moment George W. Bush rained bombs on Baghdad, the military ordinariate bishop counseled troops that they could trust the President’s better judgment, Nuremburg principles notwithstanding, and other bishops fell silent. No reports of chaplains counseling otherwise were reported. The U.S. has engaged directly in 47 military actions since World War II.

As inadequate Church attention to the moral shortcomings of the social order cries for reform, so does Church leadership inattention to militarism, empire, proliferation of arms, aggression, repression, and war crimes. When does the Church ever counsel a Catholic caught up in the glamor of risking his life to kill and maim others in war, by definition nowadays “heroic,” that enlistment may well present serious moral challenges?

Meanwhile, in Washington the military-industrial complex has prevailed in its pursuit of empire and endless war, without regard for the citizenry’s views. Wars, preparations for war, and veteran services now absorb more than half of U.S. federal funds, at immeasurable loss to health care, education, housing, transportation, and to people in need here and elsewhere, and at tragic cost in lost and maimed lives, mostly noncombatants. Defense is invariably offense—following pretense negotiations. Church leadership is shamefully silent regarding the 66-year U.S.-funded and enabled Israeli campaign of war and oppression to drive all Arab Palestinians out of Palestine, even as mainline Protestant churches are pursuing promising boycott, divestment, and sanctions resistance. Rome and U.S. bishops are largely silent about U.S. government terrorismassassinations, indiscriminate drone killings, torture, and proxy subversion of constitutional democracies elsewhere when it suits the powers that be—Chile, Haiti (repeatedly), Honduras, and Venezuela, for example. Abortion is always intrinsically evil; the carnage of war never.

Our complicity in violence does not, of course, end with warfare. Hundreds of U.S. bishops have been complicit in clergy abuse of children. Church leadership has not been notable in challenging police brutality and racial profiling, guard abuse of prisoners, rape of women in the military, domestic violence, and sundry other violent denials of citizens’ rights.

For the last 40 years, to be a bishop one had to see abortion as the one violence worth moral attention. Apart from occasional U.S bishops’ conference criticism of arms sales and military action, opposition to violence is left to Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, John Dear, Kathy Kelly, and Helen Prejean making the rounds, their audiences usually the superannuated. Pax Christi USA, though blessed by Rome, receives little or no episcopal cooperation.

First Year in Review

Francis acknowledges that he chose his papal name in recognition that Francis of Assisi is “the man of peace… He is the man who gives us this spirit.” Like John XXIII who learned much from his diplomatic experience in World War II, Francis’ experience in the Dirty War in Argentina has lessoned him. “War must never be the path to resolution,” he declares in On Heaven and Earth. Unresolved differences call for “reconciled diversity.” His favorite mantra is the power of love.

Francis has opposed U.S. military intervention in Syria, enlisting the people of God by calling for a day of prayer and fasting. He has repeatedly called for reconciliation and peace in strife-torn situations, from Korea to Africa and the Middle East.

Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium identifies inequality, exclusion, lack of opportunity, marginalization, abandonment, and an unbridled consumerism that rends the social fabric as causes for violence that military power cannot counter. His World Day of Peace message calls for a conversion of hearts that occasions recognition of other peoples as fellow humans, scores “a globalization of indifference” to the suffering of others, and pleads for disarmament. A January address to diplomats decried the previous year’s “destruction and death” and its causes envy, selfishness, competition, and “thirst for power and money” and called for resort to “the moral force of law” and development of a “culture of encounter” that leads to communion and peace. He promises Church efforts “to rebuild a climate of reconciliation and peace among all groups in society.”

What’s Ahead

The foremost violence today is directed at Creation. A Church truly engaged in the world will provide leadership in addressing the existential threats of climate change through reduced carbon emissions, fair distribution of alternative energy resources, and righting a failed economic order that dismisses the elemental needs of billions and ignores the environmental crisis. It will challenge U.S. militarism’s immoral diversion of resources to arms; pursuit of “full spectrum dominance”; and leveraging of its military power to dictate, in the interest of corporate greed, everywhere it chooses. It will seek to mediate resolution of ethnic and tribal conflicts. It will provide leadership in ending gender, sexual, prison, domestic, and street violence, bullying, and clericalism. Few present bishops appear committed to nonviolence beyond challenging abortion and the death penalty.

We may expect Francis and bishops he appoints to begin to provide this leadership, assisted by a younger generation that rejects war and is determined to meet the economic and environmental crises and, as such movements as Occupy, 350, and Pace e Bene’s Campaign Nonviolence (now forming) indicate, will act.

Important Quotes from Pope Francis

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and shalt hate thy enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” Mt. 5: 43-44

“For Christians, a resort to violence reveals a failure to trust in God and God’s purposes in every human situation.” Gaudium et Spes, p.79.

“National leaders bear a moral obligation to see that nonviolent alternatives are seriously considered for dealing with conflicts. New styles of preventative diplomacy and conflict resolution ought to be explored, tried, improved and supported. As a nation we should promote research, education and training in nonviolent means of resisting evil. Nonviolent strategies need greater attention in international affairs. U.S. Bishops’ Conference,” The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace (1992)

“How many conflicts, how many wars have mocked our history? Even today we raise our hand against our brother . . . . We have perfected our weapons; our consciences have fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal that we continue to sow destruction, pain, and death. Violence and war lead only to death.” Pope Francis, Evening Prayer Service, St. Peter’s Square, December 17, 2013

“Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.” Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).



  • Thomas Reese, SJ. “Francis the peacemaker,” National Catholic Reporter. January 31, 2014.
  • William H. Slavick , “The Peace of Christ and Just Violence,” Rome Has Spoken , eds. Maureen Fiedler and Linda Rabben (1998)
  • Books and Documents
  • John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (1963)
  • U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (1983)
  • James W. Douglass. The Nonviolent Coming of God (1991)
  • John Dear, The Nonviolent Life (2013)
  • David Swanson: War No More: the Case for Abolition (2013
  • John Dear, SJ, Living Peace: A Spirituality of Contemplation and Action (2001)
  • William F, Schulz. In Our Own Interest: How Human Rights Benefit Us All (2001)
  • Arundhati Roy, Power Politics (2001)
  • Trudy Govier, What Philosophy Can Tell Us About Terrorism (2002)

Start a Discussion

  • Why have Church leaders so long ignored the nonviolent Gospel?
  • How do we challenge U.S. militarism and imperialism?
  • How can jobless, hopeless youth be saved from violence and incarceration—and militarism?
  • How do we change a culture given to indifference to the causes of crime among the young and to vengeance and incarceration without rehabilitation?

Take Action

  • Sign the Campaign Nonviolence Pledge
  • Form a Campaign Nonviolence study group.
  • Hear John Dear, Kit Evans, Kathy Kelly, and Bishop Gumbleton speak.
  • Join a Pax Christi group.
  • Introduce the pursuit of nonviolence and peace in your parish Social Justice Commission.
  • Form nonviolence and peace coalitions.

Prepared by Pax Christi Maine