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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Narrow Path: From Just War to Nonviolence

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The tradition of “just war theory” has guided the Catholic Church’s response to conflict in some form for nearly 1,500 years. In recent decades, however, the Church has come to place more emphasis on nonviolent resistance, a tradition more closely associated with the early Christian period before Constantine. On November 6, Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., visited the Boisi Center to discuss this shift to nonviolence in Catholic thought.

Christiansen presented the different steps in the transition chronologically, beginning with the Second Vatican Council in 1963, whose praise of nonviolent activists set a foundation for the steady return to nonviolent thinking. The Council’s message was not one of pacifism, though, as it also stressed the legitimacy of using force to promote justice in the world. The 1983 American bishops’ pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” signaled another step when it described just war and nonviolence as distinct but intertwined teachings. Though they may seem incompatible, Christiansen argued that shared presumption against the use of force and emphases on active resistance enable them to coexist within Church teaching.

Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991) credited nonviolent resistors with ending World War II and urged peaceful conflict resolution. Two years later, the American bishops published another pastoral letter, “The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace,” which placed nonviolence at the core of the Catholic response to conflict.

The Church continues to recognize the right of states to go to war, but only after chances for peaceful settlement have been exhausted; the teaching of nonviolence thus ultimately ends in the tradition of just war, and not in pacifism.