By Erica Chenoweth
Last week, the Vatican hosted a conference on the theme of â€œNonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence,â€ organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace along with the global Catholic peace network Pax Christi International. In their concluding appeal to Pope Francis, the 80 conference participants recommended that he reject Just War Doctrine as a viable or productive Catholic tradition. They also recommended that he write a new encyclical laying out the Catholic Churchâ€™s commitment to nonviolence in all of its manifestationsâ€”including nonviolent action as a means of engaging in conflict, nonviolent conflict resolution as a way of resolving conflict, and nonviolence as the principle doctrine of the Catholic Church.
If such an encyclical follows, this is a big deal. The just war traditionâ€”which contains numerous doctrines morally justifying violence and war, as well as defining appropriate conduct during warâ€”has served for the past 1500 years as the primary normative basis politicians have evoked (correctly or incorrectly) to validate their waging of war. Because the Catholic Church developed the doctrine between the 4th and 13th centuries, the just war canon has had a monopolistic influence on the way people in the West think about war and violenceâ€”whether they know it or not. Consequently, many people now take for granted concepts like the right to self-defense, the importance of weighing the goals of war against its potential human costs, the need to exhaust other options before going to war, and the necessity of only fighting wars you think you can win. Whether youâ€™re the President of the United States in D.C., a police officer on the beat in Denver, or a student in a self-defense class in L.A., these moral concepts have probably had a deep impact on your thinking and your experience when it comes to the proper uses of violence.
Conference participants acknowledged the main sticking point for many skeptics of nonviolenceâ€”that promoting (or using) nonviolence can be difficult in the face of armed aggression. Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International and a participant at the conference, claimed that the group fully considered this challenge. Yet she argued that the international community hasnâ€™t yet devoted resources to developing or discovering nonviolent alternatives to armed aggression because of our reflexive turn to violence as the only possible response. In her words,Â â€œas long as we keep saying we can do it with military force, we will not invest the creative energy, the deep thinking, the financial and human resources in creating or identifying the alternatives that actually could make a difference.â€
Soâ€”why is the Catholic Church reconsidering now? ReporterÂ Terrence Lynne arguesÂ that there are five primary reasons for thisâ€”among them the fact that contemporary weapons of war render obsolete any positive impacts that war might have; and what he calls â€œthe compelling, thrilling saga of nonviolent action over the 60 years since Gandhi.â€ Indeed, among the argumentsÂ Pope Francis usedÂ to encourage the conference participants was the dramatic rise in the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance over the past centuryâ€”a trend we hear a lot around the halls of theÂ Korbel School. In fact, one of the participants in this landmark conference was my colleagueÂ Maria J. Stephan, whose work on civil resistance in aÂ variety of strugglesÂ around the world helped to provide aÂ strong empirical basisÂ for this conference.
Howâ€™s that for engaged scholarship?Î¦
Erica ChenowethÂ isÂ Professor & Associate Dean for Research | Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.Â Originally publishedÂ at Political Violence at a Glance, republishing permitted.