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The Challenge
of Peace

The U.S. Bishops' Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response," in Condensed Form

Apprehension about nuclear war is almost tangible and visible today. Nuclear war threatens the existence of our planet; this is a more menacing threat than any the world has known. It is neither tolerable nor necessary that human beings live under this threat.

As Pope John Paul II said at Hiroshima: "From now on it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can survive." As Americans, citizens of the nation which was first to produce atomic weapons, which has been the only one to use them and which today is one of the handful of nations capable of decisively influencing the course of the nuclear age, we have grave human, moral and political responsibilities to see that a "conscious choice" is made to save humanity.

'A Church at the service of peace'

The Catholic tradition on war and peace is a long and complex one, reaching from the Sermon on the Mount to the statements of Pope John Paul II. At the center of the Church's teaching on peace and at the center of all Catholic social teaching are the transcendence of God and the dignity of the human person. The human person is the clearest reflection of God's presence in the world; all of the Church's work in pursuit of both justice and peace is designed to protect and promote the dignity of every person. For each person not only reflects God, but is the expression of God's creative work and the meaning of Christ's redemptive ministry.

Christians approach the problem of war and peace with fear and reverence. God is the Lord of life, and so each human life is sacred; modern warfare threatens the obliteration of human life on a previously unimaginable scale. The sense of awe and "fear of the Lord" which former generations felt in approaching these issues weighs upon us with new urgency.

We believe that the Church, as a community of faith and social institution, has a proper, necessary and distinctive part to play in the pursuit of peace. Because peace, like the Kingdom of God itself, is both a divine gift and a human work, the Church should continually pray for the gift and share in the work. We are called to be a Church at the service of peace.

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 dwell—through whom all things in heaven and on earth were reconciled to God—Jesus 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 matters soberly.

"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 don't

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 to need.

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 war

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 exhausted.

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 from distortion.

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 for control."

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 weapons

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 as possible.

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 of explosion."

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 fail us.

Editor's note: This condensation of the U.S. bishops' war and peace pastoral is not intended as a substitute for reading the complete document but as an overview of major points, It is best read in light of the entire pastoral, which can be ordered from: Office of Publishing Services, United States Catholic Conference, 1312 Massachusetts Ave., N. W., Washington, D.C. 20005. Single copies, $1.85 (includes postage and handling).

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.


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