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Threads of a Nonviolent Future:



2023 marks the 60th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical letter “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”), year two of the Second Vatican Council, and 40 years since the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ watershed pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” 


The world was suddenly jolted into the atomic age on August 6 and 9, 1945 when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Father George Zabelka was the Air Force chaplain for both missions. He came to recognize that he had denied the very foundations of his faith by lending moral and religious support to the bombings. In 1985, Fr. Zabelka confessed, “All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people.”


In fact, most Catholics paid scant attention to the moral disconnect between Catholic theology and “obliteration bombing,” the deliberate targeting of civilian areas in major cities conducted by both sides during World War II. Such widespread disregard for the “jus in bello” requirement of Catholic just war theory – forbidding intentional, direct attacks on civilians – contributed to tacit approval by many Catholics of the atomic bombings. The “Cold War” and the nuclear arms race, particularly after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon in 1949, led to growing acceptance of such weapons by American Catholics, who ardently opposed Communism. Under the nuclear cloud and the absurd military doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), the survival of humankind was threatened like never before in history. As Thomas Merton observed in 1961, “It does not even enter our minds that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as we are loved by God, who warned us that those who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, women and children, without discrimination. Only love can exorcise the fear that is at the root of war.”


In “Pacem in Terris,” published April 11, 1963, Pope John XXIII comprehensively addressed the moral vacuum of the nuclear arms race. He stated: “Justice, right reason, and the recognition of {our} dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all around and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control.” Further, “Everyone, however, must realize that, unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach {our} very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race, or to reduce armaments, or - and this is the main thing - ultimately to abolish them entirely. Everyone must sincerely co-operate in the effort to banish fear and the anxious expectation of war from {our} minds. But this requires that the fundamental principles upon which peace is based in today's world be replaced by an altogether different one, namely, the realization that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust.” In October 1962, less than eight months before his death, Pope John convened the Second Vatican Council. The Council’s final document (December 1965) was “Gaudium et Spes” (“Joy and Hope”), reflecting John’s vision of engagement with the world outside the Church. “Gaudium et Spes” is particularly notable for its support of conscientious objection, its condemnation of modern “scientific weapons” with their “massive and indiscriminate destruction,” and “any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities … along with their population.” Twenty years later, the U.S. Catholic Bishops would refer to both “Pacem in Terris” and Vatican II extensively in their own milestone document.


Another vital “thread” in the direction of nonviolence was the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ May 1983 Pastoral Letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” The bishops – many of whom had been awakened to peace and social justice by Vatican II - decided in late 1980 to develop a study of war and peace in the nuclear age. It was a time fraught with peril, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the election of Ronald Reagan, who had promised to accelerate the buildup of U.S. nuclear forces – and did so. The composition of the committee formulating the letter – including both Bishop Tom Gumbleton of Pax Christi USA and Archbishop John O’Connor of the Military Vicariate - led to a certain amount of compromise. Ultimately, the bishops affirmed the Church’s historic “just war” teaching, while stressing that it begins with “a presumption against war.” At the same time, the bishops introduced (to many Catholics perhaps for the first time) the Church’s rich tradition of nonviolence. The letter condemned “offensive war of any kind,” and held that “strictly conditioned” nuclear deterrence is morally acceptable only “as a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.” The letter stated that “decisions about nuclear weapons … involve fundamental moral choices. In simple terms, we are saying that good ends (defending one's country, protecting freedom, etc.) cannot justify immoral means (the use of weapons which kill indiscriminately and threaten whole societies). We fear that our world and nation are headed in the wrong direction.” And, addressing the heart of the matter from a Gospel perspective, “The whole world must summon the moral courage and technical means to say ‘no’ to nuclear conflict; ‘no’ to weapons of mass destruction; ‘no’ to an arms race which robs the poor and the vulnerable; and ‘no’ to the moral danger of a nuclear age which places before humankind indefensible choices of constant terror or surrender. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus.” The pastoral letter was remarkable in many respects. As Ronald Musto points out in “The Catholic Peace Tradition”: it went through three drafts and intense debate inside and outside the Church; it produced a revolution in American Catholic thinking on war and peace; and, it was the first attempt at a synthesis of and compromise between the “just war” and nonviolent traditions within Catholic history. In addition, it was a product of American bishops, in the only nation that had used nuclear weapons in war, and an administration that was prepared to fight and win a nuclear war.    


Without Catholic Social Teaching, and in a special way “Pacem in Terris,” Vatican II, and “The Challenge of Peace,” it is difficult to imagine the emergence of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (CNI). The CNI began, with the consent of Pope Francis, in 2016. It “affirms that active nonviolence is at the heart and vision of Jesus, the life of the Catholic Church, and the long-term vocation of healing and reconciling both people and the planet.” Thus, the CNI calls us back to the nonviolence of Jesus, a message that is abundantly clear throughout the Gospels. As peacemakers from around the world gathered in April 2016 for the initial CNI conference, they were greeted by a message from Pope Francis including these words: “The ultimate and most deeply worthy goal of the human community is the abolition of war. In this vein, we recall that the only explicit condemnation issued by the Second Vatican Council was against war.”


We close with two reflections. The first is from the 93-year old Austrian nonviolent activist Hildegard Goss-Mayr, who John Dear called, in 2009, the greatest living peacemaker. “We confess that for centuries, our church, the people of God, has betrayed this central message of the gospel many times and participated in wars, persecution, oppression, exploitation and discrimination.” Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Laureate from Northern Ireland, speaking at the April 2016 conference, said: “I think that churches have a tremendous opportunity at this point in history, to turn around our history and to declare our vision of a demilitarized, peaceful world, which is what we long for. And if the churches give that kind of visionary, prophetic leadership, the people are ready for it. All over the world, people are ready for it. We’ve had enough of war, of killing each other, destroying. People are ready for the vision if we can articulate it from the heart of Rome, through the church, through an encyclical on nonviolence and peace. It’s going to be a long, long work, transforming a cultural mindset. This is historic, we’re turning history. But we can do it!”


                                                                                                                                                     May 2023

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