The Narrow Path: From Just War to Nonviolence

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Drew Christiansen, S.J.
Boston College

Date: November 6, 2013

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Thirty Years ago the U.S. Catholic bishops’ peace pastoral The Challenge of Peace educated the American public in the principles of the Just War. Less than a decade later, Pope John Paul II endorsed the example of the nonviolent resistance that overthrew Communist rule in Eastern Europe in both domestic and international affairs. Fr. Christiansen’s talk will explore how this transformation took place, what its ramifications have been on Catholic social teaching and engagement in world affairs, and its appropriation by the Catholic community.

Speaker Bio

Drew Christiansen, S.J.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is a visiting scholar in the Boston College Theology Department. In 2012 he retired as editor in chief of the national Catholic weekly America. From 1991–1998, he was director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Catholic Conference and continued to serve as counselor in International Affairs through 2004. He was the principal adviser on the U.S. bishops’ post–Cold War policy articulated in The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, as well as on their ecological programs, beginning with the environmental pastoral letter Renewing the Earth. He has taught ethics and peace studies at the Jesuit School of Theology and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and the University of Notre Dame. In January 2014 he will assume his new position as distinguished professor of Ethics and Human Development at Georgetown University. He is co-author of Forgiveness in Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace (USCCB, 2004) and more recently co-editor of Michel Sabbah Faithful Witness: On Peace and Reconciliation in the Holy Land (Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation, 2009). He has authored hundreds of articles and been published in more than a dozen foreign journals. He received his undergraduate degree from the seminary at Fordham University and his M.Div. and S.T.M. from Woodstock College before obtaining his master’s of philosophy and doctorate from Yale.

Event Photos

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Drew Christiansen, S.J., speaking at the Boisi Center on November 6, 2013.

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Photos by Kerry Burke, MTS Photography.

Event Recap

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.

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Further Reading

Drew Christiansen, S.J., "Benedict XVI Peacemaker," Faith in International Affairs 5:4 (Dec. 2007).

Drew Christiansen, S.J., "Catholic Peacemaking 1991-2005: The Legacy of John Paul II," Review of Ethics in International Affairs, 4:2 (Sept. 2006).

Drew Christiansen, S.J., "Opportunities Lost and Gained: The Harvest of The Challenge of Peace," The Sign of Peace (Summer 2008).

Drew Christiansen, S.J., "The Theology of Peace and the Ethics of War: Catholic Social Teaching and the Just War Tradition," (presented at 2002 Bridgefolk Conference, St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, MN, November 21-24, 2002).

Drew Christiansen, S.J., "The Wider Horizon: Peacemaking, the Use of Force and the Communion of Christians," in Gerald Schlabah, Just Policing, Not War: An Alternative Response to Violence (Liturgical Press, 2007).

Drew Christiansen, S.J., William Bole, and Robert Hennemeyer, Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 2004).

Drew Christiansen, S.J., "Whither the Just War?,America Magazine 118:10 (March 24, 2003).

Drew Christiansen, S.J., "Nonviolence, the Responsibility to Protect and Peacebuilding," Origins 41, no. 17 (September 29, 2011), 265-270.

Peacemaking: Moral and Policy Changes for a New World, Ed. Drew Christiansen, S.J., Gerard F. Powers, and Robert Hennemeyer (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 1994).

Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2302-2317.

John C. Ford S.J., "The Morality of Obliteration Bombing," War in the Twentieth Century: Sources in Theological Ethics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992).

Luke Hansen S.J., "'The Challenge of Peace' Today," America Magazine, 3 May, 2013.

John XXIII, Encyclical Letter, Pacem in Terris, 11 April, 1963.

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Centesimus Annus (May 1, 199), 23, 25 and 52.

John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward, 1960). 249-273.

Ronald Musto, The Catholic Peace Tradition (Orbis, 1988).

Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics and Praxis, Ed. Robert J. Schreiter et al. (Orbis, 2010).

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response (May 3. 1983).

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace (November 17, 1993).

Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 77-90.

In the News

Earlier this year, Bishop Robert McElroy spoke at Boston College about modern challenges to Catholic teachings on war and peace. Looking at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through a Catholic pacifist lens, Bishop McElroy warns that drones and preemptive wars are not defeating evil, but confirming it. On November 6 at the Boisi Center, Drew Christiansen, S.J., continued this conversation with a talk on the transition of Catholic teaching from just war to nonviolence.