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Pacifist petition circulates among Massachusetts Catholics


While staff at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pored over drafts of the pastoral on terrorism, a pastoral that ultimately sanctioned military force in Afghanistan, a Catholic lay community drafted its own statement on the war, urging the church to reclaim its “sacred tradition” of nonviolence.

“These urgent times,” the letter states, “demand that we Catholic Christians summon ourselves and our church ‘back home’ -- home to the oldest and most sacred tradition in Christianity -- the truth of the nonviolent Jesus, the truth that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not admit to exceptions.”

Titled “A Catholic Call to Peacemaking,” the document originated with the Agape Catholic [] community, [a residential lay Catholic community based on prayer, evangelical simplicity, nonviolent witness and education] which is based in Hardwick, Mass., and is co-sponsored by Pax Christi, Massachusetts.

Approximately 1,000 people, mostly Catholics from Massachusetts, have signed the statement, and signatures keep coming in, said Suzanne Belote who, along with husband Brayton Shanley, co-founded the Agape community 20 years ago.

The couple has taught courses on Christian nonviolence at parishes and high schools in Massachusetts for the past two decades and currently offers retreats on the spirituality of Christian nonviolence.

The idea for writing “Catholic Call to Peacemaking” came in mid-October, “right after the bombing, when we got word that the Catholic response was getting worse and worse,” Belote said. She referred to growing Catholic support for the war in Afghanistan.

The Vatican, she noted, was reassuring the world “the pope was not a pacifist and Cardinal [Bernard] Law was speaking very forcefully about moral realism.” Agape wanted the church to speak with “moral clarity.”

“Our bombs cannot bring peace,” the letter states. “Dropping technologically advanced weapons of a super power on the poorest people on earth can only be a cruel and futile retaliation, adding further devastation on a war-torn land. Are we not stoking the passions of revenge in the young and the poor who will surely retaliate in kind, furthering the spiral of violence?”

The letter recognizes that many believe bombing is a “just” response to the “evil of terrorism,” but says the policy would result in the “killing of innocents,” which is “morally wrong and radically separates us from the love, teaching and example of Jesus Christ.” It asks Catholics to consider Christ’s teaching on enemies. “As the God of Love is the giver of all life, our Messiah calls us away from hatred and fear of our enemies to unconditional, nonviolent love.”

Agape’s campaign for collecting signatures was initially focused on the Nov. l meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops. Belote said that during the meeting she faxed the statement and 700 signatures to Law and other Massachusetts bishops. She also faxed the statement and signatures to Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Melkite Bishop John Botean, who voted against the pastoral on terrorism.

The letter has taken on a life of its own beyond the conference and continues to be circulated throughout the state.

Circulating the petition provides “an opportunity to gather the faithful, with or without the cardinals, to the theological message of nonviolence,” Shanley said. It is also provoking dialogue with Catholics in the pew about the tough and fearful topic of war.

John Paul Marosy of Worcester, Mass., who collected 55 signatures at his local parish, observed a “whole range of responses” to the statement from effusive support to one man’s saying, he “was convinced that if Jesus Christ were alive today, he would support the bombing in Afghanistan.”

The majority of parishioners “felt really torn,” Marosy added. “They feel really afraid for their children and their lives about what happened in New York City. That fear has been a block to people signing the statement.”

Sixty Jesuits from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkley, Calif., have signed the statement and a scattering of Catholics across the state. The campaign, however, is primarily aimed at Massachusetts Catholics, Shanley said.

“This could easily be a national effort and it should be,” he added, but Agape currently lacks the resources and personnel for broader outreach. The campaign remains open-ended, and its duration is contingent upon “intensity of interest” and the length of the war.

Original signatories include seven priests, nine nuns and members of three lay communities. This author is a member of one of the lay communities.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001 [corrected 01/18/2002]