WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Wars and Rumours of War … and Peace Making

WelCom October 2016:


This is the third and final part of a three-section article in which Bishop Peter Cullinane explores the meaning of gradualness in working for peace.

We cannot exclude from the title of ‘peace-makers’ those who risk their own lives to defend others against lethal attack. Citizens have a right to be defended, and governments a corresponding duty to defend them, by force if necessary, as well as a right to call on other governments for help, if needed. This is not different in principle from what we expect of our police forces, which sometimes have to use force, and call for back-up.

To leave others exposed and defenceless when we are in a position to help cannot be justified by invoking ‘non-violence’. Members of peace movements rightly remind us of Jesus’ sermon on the mount and his teaching on turning the other cheek. His teaching is to be taken seriously, but not superficially: it is not intended to encourage new acts of violence. Nor does it excuse us from restraining perpetrators of violence if we can. We are not being anti-war by allowing others to wage war. Pope Paul VI, even as he warned against revolutionary uprising, admitted that this cannot be absolutely excluded if there is no other way of liberating people from long-standing tyranny and on-going, deep injustice.

Nor does ‘non-violence’ in the sense adopted by Ghandi, Te Whiti and Tohu, Martin Luther-King and others fulfill our obligations in all situations. This is a noble philosophy and mechanism for promoting social and political change, but even where it makes use of passive resistance and civil disobedience, it simply does not apply, for example, when terrorists are attacking buses and trains in London, cafes and restaurants in Paris and Sydney, school children in Nigeria, holiday-makers in Libya, party-goers in a gay night-club in Orlando, religious and ethnic minorities on a hill-top surrounded by ISIS, etc.

The rights and duties relating to self-defence and defence of others are the basis for what has been unhelpfully nick-named the ‘just war theory’. It seems strangely necessary to say that this ‘theory’ is not intended to argue the case for war: it is intended to limit the circumstances in which force may be used even for legitimate defence! And it is not just a ‘theory’; when the Church identifies circumstances in which it would be morally wrong to use force, its teaching is to be taken seriously. It is sloppy thinking to say ‘modern wars have made the just war theory obsolete’. On the contrary, it is that ‘theory’ – or ‘the strict conditions for legitimate defence by military force’ as the Catechism of the Catholic Church more correctly calls it – that outlaws modern warfare in many circumstances!

Comparison was made above with policing. I would argue that the concept of war needs to be replaced by the concept of policing, which seems to offer a more civilised way of thinking about enforcement. I think this is also implied in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council when it said that a nation’s right to use force in self-defence exists only so long as there is ‘no competent and sufficiently powerful authority at international level’ to defend them (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 79). They too are peace-makers who work for a world order in which we can move beyond war to policing; beyond what is possible now to what might become possible yet. The temptation is to feel overwhelmed by the size of the task. But every small step in the right direction gradually shifts horizons, and in this way opens up new possibilities. It starts with where we put ourselves. Pope Paul VI was right to say: ‘there can be no new world unless there are first of all new persons’.

Archbishop Tutu was also right to link it with forgiveness:

‘When I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person; a better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.’

Whatever makes for better persons makes for peace.

Does respect for gradualness risk being used as an excuse for doing too little, and acquiescing in how things are, instead of how they should be? The trouble is: asking too much too soon can produce the same result. This is the tension being played out in differences between Pope Francis and his critics. His critics insist on repeating and emphasising the full ideal; they fear that not to do so is to compromise doctrine and moral standards. They have little to say to those who don’t reach the full ideal, other than that they are guilty. Pope Francis starts instead from human experience, which is the experience of weakness, struggle, failure and limited success; it’s about a journey in which every step in the right direction is good, and getting there gradually is better than feeling overwhelmed and not getting there at all.

Peace-making is like that: doing what you can, where you can, when you can, and believing that it all counts.

PJ Cullinane, June 2016