WASHINGTON (CNS) — When Pope Francis said, in the title of his 2017 World Day of Peace message, that he wanted to see nonviolence as “a style of politics for peace,” it made peace teachers happy, but it also prompted them to consider what such a world would look like in practical terms.
“There’s no one country that has put it all together and become a model for these others,” acknowledged William Barbieri, who is director of the peace and justice studies program in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington. He noted, though, there are many encouraging signs of international cooperation that dovetail with peacebuilding.
Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International, is keenly interested in the moral and ethical undergirding that can support nations and societies in their embrace of nonviolence.
“What would a new moral framework look like?” Dennis asked. “What now can we add to that that we can move beyond looking at the question of ‘just war’ all the time and how can we engage in the world using powerful nonviolent strategies?”
Barbieri and Dennis, who jointly led a policy workshop during the Feb. 3-6 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering on nonviolence as a style of politics, were interviewed by telephone separately by Catholic News Service following the conference.
In his World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis said: “When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promoters of nonviolent peacemaking.”
This is a critical point Dennis told CNS she wants to see explored. “What would a systematic theology of nonviolence look like?” she asked. “What would be the best scriptural exegesis that scholars could produce that would really help us understand nonviolence in response to deep injustice?”
Another issue for Dennis is how the Catholic Church can cultivate a culture of peacebuilding. She pointed to an often-forgotten pastoral letter by the U.S. bishops, “The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace,” approved in November 1993 and now approaching its 25th anniversary.
The pastoral, she noted, was written after the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall, and the “people power” revolution in the Philippines that nonviolently toppled Ferdinand Marcos’ autocracy. “The bishops said we need to invest a lot more thought and energy” in nonviolence, Dennis said. “It’s clearly more beneficial than we thought.”
Barbieri said that while no government embodies an ethic of peacebuilding in and of itself, there are still signs of it taking hold across the globe in different forms.
“The United Nations has kind of picked up on this idea, and they’ve pushed it through processes like the Sustainable Development Goals, which they’ve adopted, which incorporate some ideas about peacebuilding,” he told CNS.
Further, nonprofits and civil-society organizations assist in this work, “but the church is really a big one,” Barbieri added. “In the U.S., we have a group called the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, an umbrella organization that involves the bishops, Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, universities like Catholic University or (the University of) Notre Dame. … The idea is to sort of coordinate, be a clearinghouse, provide information on this goal of not just responding to conflicts when they break out but preventing them as much as possible and working very hard at avoiding conflicts. Some of it is very cutting-edge work.”
He cited instances in Colombia, India and Congo where this “style of politics” has taken hold.
Nor is peacebuilding strictly a Catholic issue. Pope Francis’ World Day of Peace message cited Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun independence activist and Muslim who was a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi and embraced nonviolence, and Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran- and Mennonite-trained Liberian who led a women’s movement to stop a civil war in her homeland in 2003, and whose postwar efforts won her a share of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
Dating back to the pope’s 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Barbieri said, “you can find a continuation of this pattern of wanting to reach out to other religious communities, how he talks about how religious do not demand violence or terror. He’s trying to argue in a way and includes Islam and other religions that religions are not predisposed to violence.”
Barbieri also was impressed by Pope Francis’ use of the beatitudes in amplifying his World Day of Peace message. “Jesus himself offers a ‘manual’ for this strategy of peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount,” he said, “The Eight Beatitudes provide a portrait of the person we could describe as blessed, good and authentic.”
“He’s not going into talking about councils or bishops’ statements, the kind of things that people in the pews don’t hear about or ignore,” Barbieri said. “He’s talking about something that’s right in the core of liturgy and well-known to all but the most casual Christians.”
Dennis recalled being at a 2016 Vatican forum on nonviolence. It was not a large conference; about 80 or so attended. But one of the things conferees asked for was a World Day of Peace message focusing on nonviolence; by the end of the year, they had gotten what they wanted — and on the 50th anniversary of the annual message.
They also asked for a papal encyclical on nonviolence. Based on the response to their World Day of Peace message request, could it be possible?
“There’s no commitment that there would be an encyclical; the Vatican has not said that’s possible,” Dennis told CNS. “Only Pope Francis decides when an encyclical would be written.”
But that hasn’t stopped Catholic peace activists from gathering theologians, scholars and on-the-ground activists to do deeper thinking on an ethic of nonviolence. Some meetings are face-to-face, but due to the expense of travel and lodging, she said, more meetings are held via Skype. They expect their work to conclude in about a year.
“We think the work that we are doing now would make a contribution to Catholic social thinking on nonviolence and peace, but we hope it will be truly useful in developing Catholic understanding of it,” Dennis said, “and (lead) to nonviolent alternatives.”
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