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The Church and Nonviolence

Posted by Erin Bechtol

On October 6 and 7, the University of San Diego’s Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture hosted a conference entitled, “The Catholic Church Moves Towards Nonviolence? Just Peace/Just War in Dialogue.”  This event was a follow-up to the landmark “Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference” held in Rome in 2016 and co-sponsored by the Vatican, Pax Christi International and other organizations, including Pace e Bene.  The San Diego conference brought together members of the military, peace educators and activists.  Presenters from the Rome assembly who were in San Diego included Maria Stephan,  Marie Dennis,  Eli McCarthy, Gerald Schlabach, and Pace e Bene staff-member John Dear.  The Saturday evening keynote address was delivered by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, who played a critically important role in the Rome conference.

Terrence J. Rynne is a professor of Peace Studies at Marquette University and also presented at the landmark conference in Rome. He delivered the following presentation entitled, “The Church and Nonviolence,” on October 7, 2017.


1. Not out of the blue

The recommendation from the April 2016 Conference, An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Recommit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence, did not come out of the blue. It is the latest step in a clear pattern of ever increasingly strong and appreciative statements of the Church on nonviolence.

  • The first ever endorsement of nonviolence in an official document of the Church appeared in 1965 in the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church in the Modern World: a fairly tepid statement that read “…we cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights…”
  • In 1983 the Catholic bishops of the United States wrote an important pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace.  They said “We believe work to develop nonviolent means of fending off aggression and resolving conflict best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and to justice. Indeed, each increase in the potential destructiveness of weapons and therefore of war serves to underline the rightness of the way that Jesus mandated to his followers.” They understand that nonviolence is not passive but can be quite aggressive. They write, Nonviolence is “programmed resistance to thwart aggression, or to render ineffective any oppression attempted by force of arms.” Nonviolent action is another way to fight.
  • In 1993 the Catholic bishops of the United States wrote a ten year anniversary letter, The Harvest of Justice. Coming after half of the world had been freed in 1989-90 through organized nonviolent direct action, they are, not surprisingly, even more enthusiastic for the potential of nonviolent action. They wrote, “Although nonviolence has often been regarded as simply a personal option or vocation, recent history suggests that in some circumstances it can be an effective public undertaking as well…even against dictatorial and totalitarian regimes.” Nonviolence not just for individuals. It can be a tool of power for states as well.
  • Pope Benedict said “love of enemies constitutes the nucleus of the Christian revolution. The gospel command to love your enemies is rightly considered the magna carta of Christian nonviolence. It does not consist in succumbing to violence but to responding to evil with good and thereby breaking the chain of injustice.”
  • And now Pope Francis on January 1 of this year proclaims in his World Day of Peace Message a deep, close-in appreciation for the power and potential of nonviolence as a style of politics for peace.  He wrote: nonviolence is “the willingness to confront conflict head on, resolve it and make it a link in a new process.”

2. Why has this happened?

  • The Church has returned to reading the scriptures and making them the basis of our ethical stances—including those concerning war and peace. For centuries Christian ethicists have been relying instead on natural law thinking—perhaps afraid of being seen as “fundamentalists.” With a new hermeneutic, a modern way of reading the scriptures and correlating what we know of the life of Jesus with contemporary issues we rediscover the nonviolence of Jesus. It is hard not to be bowled over by the nonviolence of Jesus when we read the New Testament. He gave the Jews of his time an alternative to the three paths they knew—fight, flight or accommodate. The Pharisees chose fight and eventually led the revolt against Rome in 66 CE—to their destruction. The Essenes chose flight and removed themselves to the desert. The priests and Sadducees chose accommodate and raked in the money from the Temple. Jesus said “build an inclusive community and be what you are supposed to be– the light of the world. Love your enemies.” As Pope Francis said: “To be true followers of Jesus today includes embracing his teaching on nonviolence.”
  • The Church has listened to the heroic stories of people who confront violence with nonviolence and prevail. We heard many of them at the April meeting in Rome. They said clearly “Violence does not work. Only nonviolence overcomes violence.” As Doctor King said, “Only light overcomes darkness.”

3. Let’s reflect on the commonalities among and between us—members of the military and proponents of nonviolent action.


  • Reflect on how similar violent direct action, war, is to nonviolent direct action. They are alike in terms of the great courage they each require. We know the courage of soldiers in battle. But we have also seen for ourselves how Gandhi’s followers defied Britain’s Salt Laws, endured beatings with steel-tipped lathi clubs from the native police, going down like ten pins with broken skulls and fractured shoulders and still continued to come forward wave after wave. We have witnessed Archbishop Romero continue to speak out and protect his beloved campesinos until he was shot down. We have seen the religious sisters in the Philippines kneel in prayer before the tanks that Marcos had sent and offer rosaries to the army soldiers.
  • Nonviolent direct action features all the “hardihood” virtues previously associated with war. William James wrote a famous essay entitled “A Moral Alternative to War.” In it he reflected that many people thought if we did away with war our society would become flabby and soft. War, they say, inculcates the “hardihood” virtues. No less so does nonviolent direct action. See those young people approaching the lunch counters in Nashville, willing to be beat up by street thugs, thrown in jail. They exhibit all the hardihood virtues: Involvement in a cause greater than oneself, deep fellow feeling for their compatriots, discipline, resourcefulness and courage.
  • War and nonviolent direct action are also similar when it comes to strategy. The dictums of theorists of war such as Clausewitz or Napoleon apply precisely to nonviolent direct action campaigns: Concentrate force at the weakest link. The moral factor is superior to material resources. Undercut the opponent’s sources of support. Maintain surprise. Keep the initiative. The moral is worth twice the physical when it comes to support for the troops. Endure.
  • We are similar in that our heroes are of great stature.
    Chesty Puller, for example. Pope Francis holds up Ms. Gbowee from Liberia, Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan. He is not, in mentioning a Hindu and a Muslim in the same breath being politically correct. Khan was Gandhi’s most powerful and dedicated follower. Khan was a Pathan—a tribe known through the centuries for its ready violence in response to insult or injury. He came from the Northwest Territories between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, an area that even now cannot be tamed. Khan was the lion of the mountains. He generated deep fervor for nonviolent action among the one hundred thousand young Pathans who comprised his nonviolent army—resisting the British, enduring their rifle attacks and beatings, building homes and schools for their people. Undaunted in their courage and loyalty to their leader—the Khudaikitmagars, a nonviolent army of resistance.
  • We are similar in that we have young people in trainingI had a young ROTC cadet in my peace studies class recently. A most impressive young man. Loyal and committed to his fellow army cadets and to his calling. But he learned about nonviolence and its power as avidly as the rest of the students. The stories, strategies and philosophy of nonviolent action should be a part of the curriculum for all ROTC students. What could soldiers accomplish if they mastered the peacebuilding wisdom of a John Paul Lederach? What could they accomplish if they had the skills of nonviolent conflict resolution?
  • We are similar in that we have witnessed on the ground community groups building a culture of peace. At Marquette we have had a close relationship with the Afghan Peace Volunteers, young people who are steadily working to build a culture of peace—offering women employment making comforters for warmth, a school for homeless children and training them in nonviolence. We can and should collaborate in promoting such grass roots organizations

In summary, we have in common an appreciation of courage and the other hardihood virtues, the value of strategy, inspiration from our heroes, concerns for young people in training and exposure to groups on the ground who are building cultures of peace.

We are proud that the Catholic Church is recommitting to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence and see the power that can be unleashed for the world.


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