Photo: A variety of peace symbols from around the world at the prayer table at the Nonviolence and Just Peace conference, April 2016. Photo provided by Pax Christi International.
In a landmark move, attendees at a Vatican conference have released a statement rejecting Just War theory and calling on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter or teaching document rejecting the use of violence. The April 11-13 conference was co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi and drew over 80 participants from 35 countries.
The final statement says: “We live in a time of tremendous suffering, widespread trauma and fear linked to militarization, economic injustice, climate change and a myriad of other specific forms of violence. In this context of normalized and systemic violence, those of us who stand in the Christian tradition are called to recognize the centrality of active nonviolence to the vision and message of Jesus, to the life and practice of the Catholic Church and to our long-term vocation of healing and reconciling both people and the planet.”
The statement calls on the Catholic Church to develop a “new framework that is consistent with gospel nonviolence.”
Just War theory is a tradition that outlines criteria to evaluate whether use of violence is morally justifiable. It was first referred to by St. Augustine of Hippo, and expanded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas. Today it is outlined in four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The conference opened with a keynote address by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who emphasized that “the
foundation of peace is justice” and gave an overview of Pope Francis’ recent statements on nonviolence and peacebuilding. In the following days, participants in the conference had a chance to present a statement reflecting on their experience and their recommendation to the group.
Gerald Schlabach, co-founder of Bridgefolk, a grassroots Mennonite-Catholic network, and a professor at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, attended the conference. He said the event was structured like a “modified fishbowl process” and emphasized careful listening. There was also special attention given to include voices from people working at grassroots movements in conflict zones around the world. During the conference, a drafting committee was established that developed a statement that was reviewed and eventually affirmed by the group. The final statement was presented in a press conference at the Vatican.
Schlabach acknowledged that this event is one step in a long movement toward nonviolence.
“We’ve gotten to this point through both on-the-ground, grassroots learning to do peacebuilding in tough situations around the world and the steady, growing consensus in the magisterium that we need a fresh appraisal of war in the modern world,” he said in an April 19 interview. “That’s where I’d use the image of the robin in springtime. The robin is an important sign of hope, but the real change is in the axis of the earth. The slower change that’s been going on will have to keep going.”
From 1998 to 2003, Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and the Vatican engaged in a dialogue titled “Called Together to Be Peacemakers.” Following the dialogue, MWC and the Vatican released a joint statement for the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence in 2007. The statement includes the line, “We affirm Jesus’ teaching and example on nonviolence as normative for Christians.”
“In so many places around the world, it’s been Catholics who are living in situations of injustice,” said Andre Gingerich Stoner, director of interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA. “So a commitment to nonviolence means something very different for the Catholic Church than it maybe means for middle-class Mennonites in North America.… We [Mennonites] have this rich tradition of theology, and we have been a part of this process of deepening commitments within the Catholic Church to Jesus’ way of peace, but they have so many experiences of actively practicing the ways of nonviolence.”
Mennonite Church USA staff sent formal letters of encouragement and support, signed by Executive Director Ervin Stutzman, to Pax Christi International and the Pontifical Council of Peace and Justice.