e-mail us

Paths to Peace

Becoming a true peace church


Twenty years ago, as the U.S. Catholic bishops were preparing to issue “The Challenge of Peace,” their pastoral letter on war and peace, there was much talk about the Catholic church becoming a genuine “peace church.”

This title had customarily been reserved for the so-called “historic peace churches” -- the Amish, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Quakers -- but the bishops with their new pastoral seemed to be answering the Second Vatican Council’s call “to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude” (Gaudium et Spes). For many Catholics, especially those associated with the peace movement, the change signaled a new era of peacemaking in the church, an era in which all Catholics would begin to work and pray tirelessly for peace, leavening society and witnessing the peace of Christ to the nations. At least, on good days, this was the hope harbored by many -- including myself.

But in subsequent years the Catholic church in the United States has not (to put it mildly) distinguished itself in its peacemaking task. Church docility was evident during the Gulf War (or, as it might better be called, the Great Petroleum War of 1991 to the present), and is conspicuous in the present war against -- well, Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, all terrorists everywhere or whatever it is. The hope that the Catholic church would become a peace church is a forlorn hope.

Why? Because, as Thomas à Kempis observed, “We desire peace, but not the things that make for peace.”

À Kempis’ adage from The Imitation of Christ articulates a problem not about ends but about means. We desire peace as an end, but do not desire the means necessary to attain that end. In other words, we lack prudence, which Aquinas defined as “practical reasoning” or “right reason applied to action.” Blessed with good intentions but beset by fuzzy thinking, we look in the wrong direction for the necessary means to achieve peace.

We think that the things that make for peace are to be found in the mechanisms of the modern nation-state, in our case, in the government of the United States: The United States is a nation-state; nation-states make war; so to alter the behavior of the United States against making war is to increase the likelihood of making peace. Such reasoning drives most peacemaking efforts of the U.S. Catholic church. Thus the bulk of the bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace explains technical aspects of the Reagan administration’s nuclear weapons policy and analyzes the morality of preemptive strikes, retaliatory strikes, hard-target-kill strategy, deterrence strategy and so on.

All too worldly

Most church-sponsored peacemaking efforts during the Gulf War sought to change the way George H. Bush (the father) and his staff conducted the war, or the way Bill Clinton administered the subsequent economic embargo. Today, similar attention is given to the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. In each of these circumstances, church peacemaking efforts seek to influence national policy, assuming that the things that make for peace are to be found within the politics inside the beltway.

But the policies of nation states are not the things that make for peace -- not true peace, at any rate, not the peace of Christ. For we have it on reliable authority that the peace of Christ, which flows from the bond of love between the Father and the Son, is a peace the world cannot give (John 14:27). Peace among nation-states, forged by a balance of power and secured by violence, is all too worldly, not really peace at all but a truce among mutually suspicious parties. It is at best a pale reflection of the peace given by Christ to the apostles in the upper room.

When the apostles were sent forth by Christ to bring his peace to the nations, they were greeted with resistance, rejection and in many cases that most glorious of rewards: martyrdom. When successors to the apostles bring Christ’s peace to the nations of this day and age, they meet with similar greetings: Consider the lives of Ben Salmon, Edith Stein, Franz Jagerstatter, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day and many others.

We declare our readiness to follow in their footsteps whenever we gather in Christ’s name, break open his word, eat his body and drink his blood, and then “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

There is a dramatic tension, even an antagonism between the peace of Christ and the peace of empires, ancient and modern. The role of Christians is to live out the peace of Christ, which means that the church in general, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in particular, should expend its limited energy and resources first and foremost on forming Catholics into a people capable of resisting the claims of the state and embodying their prior allegiance to the Prince of Peace. Please note: This is a task of formation, essentially a pastoral task, aimed at serving ordinary Catholics, people in the pews who do not have much pull in Washington, but who do, nevertheless, have important decisions to make when it comes to making peace.

This pastoral task entails instructing Catholics about civilian and military conscientious objection. For almost 40 years now, ever since John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris (1963), the Catholic church has commended those who renounce the use of force in defending their rights and has called upon governments to release them from the obligations of military service and provide suitable noncombatant alternatives. During the Vietnam War, educating draft-age young people about the morality of war and peace was a major concern among pastoral leaders. This concern has all but evaporated. Now, very few Catholic teenagers and young adults know anything about why someone would want to be a conscientious objector and nothing about the legal procedures for becoming one.

Of course, it could be noted that there is no military draft at present, but, in fact, draft watchers agree that its reinstatement is more likely now than at any time since its discontinuation in the mid-1970s. An updated and streamlined conscription process could mobilize a generation in a matter of weeks. Are draft-eligible young people, that is, males between the ages of 19 and 26, prepared? Are youth ministers and high school teachers informed about the situation? Are pastors and principals attending to this aspect of their apostolic responsibilities?

Conscientious military service

Among the soldiers, sailors and airmen who have moral misgivings about participating in combat, few realize that military regulations allow them to apply for classification as conscientious objectors. The church should provide Catholic military personnel the information and assistance they need to examine their consciences and their options. Have the bishops ensured that church teaching on conscientious military service -- including the imperative to disobey immoral orders -- is available to them? Do military chaplains encourage those in their pastoral charge to engage in critical reflection on such matters?

These are just two of the pastoral concerns to be addressed if the church is to be a sign of Christ’s peace. There are others including: the absence of church teaching on war in ROTC curricula taught on Catholic campuses, the presence of military recruiters in Catholic high schools, the moral responsibilities of Catholic scientists who design weapons of mass destruction, and the financing of unjust wars by Catholic taxpayers.

Attending to these concerns will not magically bring peace to the nations, but it will show the nations a church that desires not only peace but the things that make for peace, a church that is a genuine peace church, one that embodies Christ, in whom lies the only true hope for peace.

Holy Cross Fr. Michael J. Baxter is a member of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame and the national secretary of the newly revived Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Peace in history

  • 1986: Nonviolent People Power in the Philippines brings down the oppressive Marcos dictatorship.
  • 1991: 80,000 Russian demonstrators surround the Moscow White House to protect President Boris Yeltsin from a coup that fails despite 4 million soldiers and thousands of tanks and aircraft.


The following documents are available on the Vatican Web site (www.vatican.va):

Gaudium et Spes

Pacem in Terris

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002