The Promotion of Peace (Chapter 11 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church)

It is worth noting that the chapter in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church that addresses issues of war and peace is entitled “The Promotion of Peace”.  The title emphasizes the vocation of the church and all Christians to be peacemakers.  It is also evidence of the fact that in the last century Catholic Social Teaching on war and peace has moved in a decidedly pacifist direction while still maintaining that the use of military force is sometimes necessary to uphold justice.


Peace: More than Just the Absence of War

What is peace anyway?  In a world marked by war, we might be inclined to define peace as the absence of war.  If we are not at war, we must be at peace.  However, the Compendium challenges us to see peace as much more than the absence of violent conflict.  In the second paragraph of this chapter we read that “In biblical revelation, peace is much more than the simple absence of war; it represents the fullness of life (cf. Mal 2:5)” (#489).  The image of the fullness of life should be paired with a vision of all things being rightly ordered – of all persons living with dignity and in harmony with one another.  To be at peace, humankind must live in right relationship with one another and with God.

This is certainly a high ideal – one that seems perhaps impossible to achieve.  Indeed, the Compendium suggests that peace in the truest, deepest sense of the word cannot be achieved in our lifetimes.  It is an eschatological reality – something that will be realized only at the end of time.  True peace can only be brought about by God (#490).

You can spot the first of many tensions here.  On the one hand, all Christians are called to work diligently for peace – among their neighbors, in their local communities, and in the messier world of international affairs.  On the other hand, we must remember that no matter how diligently we try, only God can grant definitive, lasting peace.


If You Want Peace, Work for Justice

Even though true peace can only be achieved eschatologically, the goals of right relationship, harmony within and among societies, and a life of fullness remain goals toward which every society should strive.  If living at peace means living a fulfilling, satisfying life (what might be called a life of human flourishing) then peacebuilding must include attentiveness to improving the conditions in which people live.

Catholic Social Thought is making two important claims in this regard.  First, the tradition is suggesting that war becomes more likely when people suffer injustice.  We read in the Compendium that “Peace is threatened when man is not given all that is due him as a human person, when his dignity is not respected and when civil life is not directed to the common good” (#494).  Peace is threatened in the real sense that war is more likely to break out when people are oppressed.  A situation marked by oppression is politically unstable and prone to uprising or civil unrest.   This insight is at the heart of Pope Paul VI’s famous phrase, “If you want peace, work for justice” (World Day of Peace Message, 1972).

But we must also remember that peace is threatened by poverty and oppression in the sense that any assault on human dignity is also an assault on peace itself.  If peace is a life of fullness, then the social conditions that prevent human beings from achieving a life of flourishing are also obstacles to peace.  This is the meaning of the claim in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio that “Development [is the] new word for peace” (PP #76; cf. Centesimus Annus #52 and Compendium #498).  Thus, everything that Catholic Social Teaching has to say about economic justice, good political order, and the human person (earlier chapters in the Compendium) are all quite relevant for a Catholic approach to the promotion of peace.


The Failure of Peace: War

A century ago, the question for Catholics was not whether war itself was legitimate so much as when or under what circumstances it would be morally legitimate to wage war.  The Catholic tradition was firmly aligned with the Just War tradition.  In the second half of the twentieth century, one can discern a shift in  Catholic thought on war and peace; serious doubts begin to emerge about the legitimacy of war as an instrument of statecraft.  Some of these doubts are repeated in the Compendium itself: “it is hardly possible to imagine that in an atomic  era, war could be used as an instrument of justice.  War is a scourge and is never an appropriate way to resolve problems that arise between nations” (#497).  “In the end, war is the failure of all true humanism, it is always a defeat for humanity” (#497).

However, two paragraphs later we find a section entitled “Legitimate Defense” (#500) that describes when it is morally permissible to resort to military force in defense of the common good.  How can it be that the Compendium can both call war a defeat, a scourge, and a failure but then go on to defend war as a legitimate means of defense?  Although the Compendium presents the social doctrine of the church to be largely static and decided, in truth it is a snapshot of an evolving tradition.  The tension between justice (i.e., the need to protect the common good and innocent people from unjust aggression) and the moral imperative to be non-violent peacemakers has not yet been worked out satisfactorily within the tradition.  It remains a matter of considerable theological debate as to how this tension should be understood and resolved.


Application of Contemporary Catholic Social Teaching on War: Two Guideposts

The concrete application of Catholic teaching on war and peace is no easy task.  This is not the place to attempt to specify all of the implications of this teaching.  Instead, two overriding concerns or guiding principles will be noted.  First, any use of force must be undertaken with the ultimate purpose of promoting genuine peace.  This is a teleological claim (a claim about “ends” or purpose); military force is meant to serve the ends of justice and true peace.  Any use of force undertaken for reasons contrary to those ends is wrong.  Thus, a war of aggression is “intrinsically immoral” (#500).  Instead, military force should exist to serve peace and to protect the innocent from unjust aggression or harm (#502).

A second guiding principle for contemporary Catholic teaching on war and peace is discrimination.  This principle holds that it is morally necessary to distinguish between military targets and innocent civilians (one must be discriminating in the use of military force).  This term is not used in the Compendium but its content is clearly there: “The principle of humanity inscribed in the conscience of every person and all peoples includes the obligation to protect civil populations from the effects of war” (#505).  It is wrong to intentionally target civilian populations in warfare.

The importance of discrimination and protecting the innocent has many policy implications.  It calls into question the legitimacy of weapons of mass destruction (because they wipe out civilian populations along with military targets) and anti-personnel landmines because they kill or maim many innocent people in wartime and after conflict has ended (#510).  The principle of discrimination and the duty to protect the innocent also rules out all terrorist acts as morally wrong (#514).  Finally, these principles should encourage political leaders to consider carefully whether to impose economic sanctions because they often put unbearable burdens on innocent civilians while the political leaders they are meant to punish remain unaffected (#507).

A great deal of contemporary theological scholarship has been devoted to the topics of war and peacebuilding.  Questions about how to use military force to uphold and protect a just and peaceful order are tremendously difficult and complex.   For Christians the matter is even further complicated by questions about whether military force can be legitimately taken up.   Is the more pressing Christian imperative to “turn the other cheek” and to give witness to the non-violence of Jesus or is it to use reasonable force and violence to uphold justice and protect the innocent from unjust aggression?  The Compendium provides a useful set of guidelines to help Christians begin to think through these difficult theological and practical questions.