What the Bible tells us about peacemaking
For us as believers, the sacred Scriptures
provide the foundation for confronting the dilemma of war and
peace today. In the Old Testament, all notions of peace must be
understood in light of Israel's relation to God. Peace is always
seen as gift from God and as fruit of God's saving activity. Peace
is a special characteristic of the covenant; when the prophet
Ezekiel looked to the establishment of the new, truer covenant,
he declared that God would establish an everlasting covenant of
peace with the people (Ezekiel 37:26).
As Christians we believe that Jesus
is the Messiah or Christ so long awaited. And as the one in whom
the fullness of God was pleased to dwellthrough whom all
things in heaven and on earth were reconciled to GodJesus
made peace by the blood of the cross (Colossians 1:19-20). Jesus
proclaimed the reign of God in his words and made it present in
his actions. In God's reign the poor are given the Kingdom,..
.the meek inherit the earth,.. .and peacemakers are called the
children of God (Matthew 5:3-10).
All who hear Jesus are repeatedly called
to forgive one another. The forgiveness of God, which is the beginning
of salvation, is manifested in communal forgiveness and mercy.
Jesus also described God's reign as one in which love is an active,
life-giving, inclusive force. He called for a love which went
beyond family ties and bonds of friendship to reach even those
who were enemies (Matthew 5:44-48; Luke 6:27-28).
Jesus Christ, then, is our peace, and
in his death-resurrection he gives God's peace to our world. In
him God has indeed reconciled the world, made it one, and has
manifested definitively that his will is this reconciliation,
this unity between God and all peoples, and among the people themselves.
The way to union has been opened, the covenant of peace established.
Because we have been gifted with God's
peace in the risen Christ, we are called to our own peace and
to the making of peace in our world. As disciples and as children
of God it is our task to seek for ways in which to make the forgiveness,
justice and mercy, and love of God visible in a world where violence
and enmity are too often the norm.
'The right to legitimate defense'
The protection of human rights and
the preservation of peace are tasks to be accomplished in a world
marked by sin and conflict of various kinds. The Church's teaching
on war and peace establishes a strong presumption against war
which is binding on all; it then examines when this presumption
may be overridden, precisely in the name of preserving the kind
of peace which protects human dignity and human rights.
As Vatican II made clear, "Certainly
war has not been rooted out of human affairs. As long as the danger
of war remains and there is no competent and sufficiently powerful
authority at the international level, governments cannot be denied
the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement
has been exhausted. Therefore, government authorities and others
who share public responsibility have the duty to protect the welfare
of the people entrusted to their care and to conduct such grave
"But it is one thing to undertake military
action for the just defense of the people, and something else
again to seek the subjugation of other nations. Nor does the possession
of war potential make every military or political use of it lawful.
Neither does the mere fact that war has unhappily begun mean that
all is fair between the warring parties" (Pastoral Constitution
on the Church in the Modern World, #79).
The Christian has no choice but to
defend peace, properly understood, against aggression. This is
an inalienable obligation. It is the how of defending peace which
offers moral options.
Those who bear arms and those who
We stress this principle because we
observe so much misunderstanding about both those who resist bearing
arms and those who bear them. Great numbers from both traditions
provide examples of exceptional courage, examples the world continues
Of the millions of men and women who
have served with integrity in the armed forces, many have laid
down their lives. Many others serve today throughout the world
in the difficult and demanding task of helping to preserve the
"peace of a sort" of which the Council speaks.
We see many deeply sincere individuals
who, far from being indifferent or apathetic to world evils, believe
strongly in conscience that they are best defending true peace
by refusing to bear arms. In some cases they are motivated by
their understanding of the gospel and the life and death of Jesus
as forbidding all violence. No government, and certainly no Christian,
may simply assume that such individuals are mere pawns of conspiratorial
forces or guilty of cowardice.
Catholic teaching sees these two distinct
moral responses as having a complementary relationship in the
sense that both seek to serve the common good. They differ in
their perception of how the common good is to be defended most
effectively, but both responses testify to the Christian conviction
that peace must be pursued and rights defended within moral restraints
and in the context of defining other basic human values.
How the 'just-war' theory limits
The moral theory of the "just-war"
or "limited-war" doctrine begins with the presumption which binds
all Christians: We should do no harm to our neighbors. Just-war
teaching has evolved as an effort to prevent war. Only if war
cannot be rationally avoided does the teaching then seek to restrict
and reduce its horrors. It does this by establishing a set of
rigorous conditions which must be met if the decision to go to
war is to be morally permissible. Such a decision, especially
today, requires extraordinarily strong reasons for overriding
the presumption in favor of peace and against war.
The conditions for a just war are as follows:
1. Just cause. War is permissible
only to confront "a real and certain danger," i.e., to protect
innocent life, to preserve conditions necessary for decent human
existence and to secure basic human rights.
2. Competent authority. War
must be declared by those with responsibility for public order,
not by private groups or individuals.
3. Comparative justice. In essence:
Which side is sufficiently "right" in a dispute, and are the values
at stake critical enough to override the presumption against war?
Do the rights and values involved justify killing? Given techniques
of propaganda and the ease with which nations and individuals
either assume or delude themselves into believing that God or
right is clearly on their side, the test of comparative justice
may be extremely difficult to apply.
4. Right intention. War can
be legitimately intended only for the reasons set forth above
as a just cause.
5. Last resort. For resort to
war to be justified, all peaceful alternatives must have been
6. Probability of success. This
is a difficult criterion to apply, but its purpose is to prevent
irrational resort to force or hopeless resistance when the outcome
of either will clearly be disproportionate or futile.
7. Proportionality. This means
that the damage to be inflicted and the costs incurred by war
must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms.
Because of the destructive capability
of modern technological warfare, the principle of proportionality
(and that of discrimination) takes on special significance. Today
it becomes increasingly difficult to make a decision to use any
kind of armed force, however limited initially in intention and
in the destructive power of the weapons employed, without facing
at least the possibility of escalation to broader, or even total,
war and to the use of weapons of horrendous destructive potential.
"Indeed, if the kind of weapons now
stocked in the arsenals of the great powers were to be employed
to the fullest, the result would be the almost complete reciprocal
slaughter of one side by the other, not to speak of the widespread
devastation that would follow in the world and the deadly after-effects
resulting from the use of such weapons" (Pastoral Constitution,
#80). To destroy civilization as we know it by waging such a "total
war" as today it could be waged would be a monstrously disproportionate
response to aggression on the part of any nation.
Just response to aggression must also
be discriminate; it must be directed against unjust aggressors,
not against innocent people caught up in a war not of their making.
The Council therefore issued its memorable declaration: "Any act
of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities
or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against
God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation."
Side by side with the just-war theory
throughout Christian history has been the tradition of nonviolence.
One of the great nonviolent figures was St. Francis of Assisi.
While the just-war teaching has clearly
been in possession for the past 1,500 years of Catholic thought,
the "new moment" in which we find ourselves sees the just-war
teaching and nonviolence as distinct but interdependent methods
of evaluating warfare. They diverge on some specific conclusions,
but they share a common presumption against the use of force as
a means of settling disputes. Both find their roots in the Christian
theological tradition; each contributes to the full moral vision
we need in pursuit of a human peace. We believe the two perspectives
support and complement one another, each preserving the other
New moral questions
Nuclear weapons particularly and nuclear
warfare as it is planned today raise new moral questions. As indicated
in a statement from the Holy See to the United Nations in 1976,
the arms race is to be condemned as a danger, an act of aggression
against the poor and a folly which does not provide the security
it promises. And according to a study of the Pontifical Academy
of Sciences commissioned by Pope John Paul II, "Recent talk about
winning or even surviving a nuclear war must reflect a failure
to appreciate a medical reality: Any nuclear war would inevitably
cause death, disease and suffering of pandemonic proportions and
without the possibility of effective medical intervention. That
reality leads to the same conclusion physicans have reached for
life-threatening epidemics throughout history: Prevention is essential
We believe it is necessary for the
sake of prevention to build a barrier against the concept of nuclear
war as a viable strategy for defense. There should be a clear
public resistance to the rhetoric of "winnable" nuclear wars,
or unrealistic expectations of "surviving" nuclear exchanges and
strategies of "protracted nuclear war." We oppose such rhetoric.
We seek to encourage a public attitude which sets stringent limits
on the kind of actions our own government and other governments
will take on nuclear policy.
Some principles on the use of nuclear
1. Counterpopulation warfare.
Under no circumstances may nuclear weapons or other instruments
of mass slaughter be used for the purpose of destroying population
centers or other predominantly civilian targets. Retaliatory action,
whether nuclear or conventional, which would indiscriminately
take many wholly innocent lives, lives of people who are in no
way responsible for reckless actions of their government, must
also be condemned.
2. The initiation of nuclear war.
We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation
of nuclear warfare on however restricted a scale can be morally
justified. Nonnuclear attacks by another state must be resisted
by other than nuclear means. Therefore, a serious moral obligation
exists to develop non-nuclear defensive strategies as rapidly
3. Limited nuclear war. Unless
certain questions [namely, those challenging the ability of military
leaders to keep a nuclear exchange limited] can be answered satisfactorily,
we will continue to be highly skeptical about the real meaning
of "limited." One of the criteria of the just-war tradition is
a reasonable hope of success in bringing about justice and peace.
We must ask whether such a reasonable hope can exist once nuclear
weapons have been exchanged. The burden of proof remains on those
who assert that meaningful limitation is possible.
On deterrence. Essentially deterrence
means dissuasion of a potential adversary from initiating an attack
or conflict, often by the threat of unacceptable retaliatory damage.
Pope John Paul II makes this statement about the morality of deterrence:
"In current conditions 'deterrence' based on balance, certainly
not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive
disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless,
in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied
with this minimum, which is always susceptible to the real danger
In concert with the evaluation provided
by Pope John Paul II, we have arrived at a strictly conditional
moral acceptance of deterrence. We cannot consider such a policy
adequate as a long-term basis for peace.
Some specific recommendations
In light of the present size and composition
of both the U.S. and Soviet strategic arsenals, we recommend:
1. Support for immediate, bilateral,
verifiable agreements to halt the testing, production and deployment
of new nuclear weapons systems.
2. Support for negotiated bilateral
deep cuts in the arsenals of both superpowers, particularly those
weapons systems which have destabilizing characteristics.
3. Support for early and successful
conclusion of negotiations of a comprehensive test ban treaty.
A better system of global interdependence
We are now entering an era of new,
global interdependencies requiring global systems of governance
to manage the resulting conflicts and ensure our common security.
We live in a global age with problems and conflicts on a global
scale. Either we shall learn to resolve these problems together
or we shall destroy one another. Mutual security and survival
require a new vision of the world as one interdependent planet.
We call for the establishment of some form of global authority
adequate to the needs of the international common good.
Papal teaching of the last four decades
has not only supported international institutions in principle,
it has supported the United Nations specifically. Pope Paul VI
said to the U.N. General Assembly: "The edifice which you have
constructed must never fail; it must be perfected and made equal
to the needs which world history will present. You mark a stage
in the development of mankind from which retreat must never be
admitted, but from which it is necessary that advance be made."
The challenge before us
To be a Christian, according to the
New Testament, is not simply to believe with one's mind, but also
to become a doer of the Word, a wayfarer with and a witness to
Jesus. These comments about the meaning of being a disciple or
a follower of Jesus today are especially relevant to the quest
for genuine peace in our time.
We urge every diocese and parish to
implement balanced and objective educational programs to help
people of all age levels to understand better the issues of war
and peace. We reject criticism of the Church's concern with these
issues on the ground that it "should not become involved in politics."
We are called to move from discussion to witness and action.
Reverence for life. No society
can live in peace with itself or with the world without a full
awareness of the worth and dignity of every human person and of
the sacredness of all human life (James 4:1-2). Violence has many
faces: oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human rights,
economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect
or abuse of the aged and the helpless, and innumerable other acts
of inhumanity. Abortion in particular blunts a sense of the sacredness
of human life. In a society where the innocent unborn are killed
wantonly, how can we expect people to feel righteous revulsion
at the act or threat of killing noncombatants in war?
The arms race presents questions of
conscience we may not evade. As American Catholics we are called
to express our loyalty to the deepest values we cherish: peace,
justice and security for the entire human family. National goals
and policies must be measured against that standard. Given the
growth in our understanding of the evergrowing horror of nuclear
war, we must shape the climate of opinion which will make it possible
for our country to express profound sorrow over the atomic bombing
in 1945. Without that sorrow, there is no possibility of finding
a way to repudiate future use of nuclear weapons.
In a democracy the responsibility of
the nation and that of its citizens coincide. Nuclear weapons
pose especially acute questions of conscience for American Catholics.
The virtue of patriotism means that as citizens we respect and
honor our country, but our very love and loyalty make us examine
carefully and regularly its role in world affairs, asking that
it live up to its full potential as an agent of peace with justice
for all people.
We reaffirm our desire to participate
in a common public effort with all men and women of goodwill who
seek to reverse the arms race and secure the peace of the world.
Called to be builders of peace
We are the first generation since
Genesis with the power to virtually destroy God's creation. We
cannot remain silent in the face of such danger. 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.
It is our belief in the risen Christ which sustains
us in confronting the awesome challenge of the nuclear arms race.
Respecting our freedom, he does not solve our problems, but sustains
us as we take responsibility for his work of creation and try to
shape it in the ways of the Kingdom. We believe his grace will never
This document is adapted from Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response," copyright 1983, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Provided by Catholic News Service. Used with permission.