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Is John Paul II the Catholic Ghandi? Does he want Catholics to be pacifists?

Pope John Paul II's vigorous opposition to the war in Iraq made some American Catholics and other observers wonder whether the Holy Father was abandoning the traditional Catholic position on the possibility of "just wars." An important (non-Catholic) observer of the Vatican for a prestigious secular news outlet told me that Pope John Paul II would be known in history as the "Pope of non-violence." President Bush's Catholic advisors, who helped him put together the moral arguments in support of the war, went on emergency lecture tours to try to minimize the damage caused by this perception of the Pope's position. The President's political advisors, who try to cultivate the "Catholic vote" by appealing to the President's pro-life position in the abortion and bioethical controversies, must have been puzzled and disturbed by this apparent clash between the Administration and the Vatican.

Is this perception true? Is John Paul II the Catholic Ghandi? Does he want Catholics to be pacifists? In fact, the Holy Father has not rejected the "just war doctrine." The Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by him reaffirms it. Indeed, the Pope and Vatican diplomacy did not mobilize to oppose the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and some of the Pope's remarks at that time appeared to justify it as a just response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Whereas the Church recognizes that some may be called to pacifism as a personal "vocation," John Paul II's opposition to war has nothing to do with pacifism.

Since Pope John XXXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) and the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Papal Magisterium has strongly insisted that in the age of nuclear weapons the dangers of a mass conflagration have made war unacceptable, and nuclear war itself immoral, according to the very principles of the just war doctrine. But although some Catholic leaders sought to make this argument against (or for) the war, the Holy Father himself has not expressed his position exactly in these terms. All wars, he has said, represent a defeat for humanity.

The Pope's position should be seen as part of the post-conciliar efforts to root Catholic moral teachings more explicitly in the faith. The "traditional" point of reference for most of the Church's teachings on war and other social issues has been the so-called "natural law" which, in theory, is perceived by all human beings. This approach has allowed the Church to offer moral guidance to believers and unbelievers alike.

Indeed, the Church has always maintained that our moral consciousness is wounded as a result of sin, and that, for this reason, faith in Christ is needed to achieve a clear perception of what is right or wrong. According to this position, however, the point of departure for moral judgments appears to be an ethics that, theoretically at least, does not need faith to discover what is just or unjust. Critics, however, say that this point of departure often degenerates into a moralism or legalism that grounds moral behavior on abstract principles or ideas rather than on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which is the heart of the Gospel.

Instead, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that the full truth about what a human being is could only be found in the mystery of Christ's identity and mission. This passage (in the Council's decree on "The Church in the Modern World," paragraph 22) has been the cornerstone of Pope John Paul II's moral teaching. This approach gives priority to a view about human nature based on the experience of what Christ's on-going presence in the world makes possible. According to this view, the Church's moral teachings originate in its mission to make Christ present in the world as the point of departure to the possibility of achieving what all human beings desire, believers or not.

In the case of war, the Pope is convinced that Christ makes peace possible and that human beings can be educated in the ways of peace if they can overcome the defeatism that accepts violence as the solution to conflicts. John Paul II is not an unrealistic visionary. He is aware that he is holding out for what can only be described as a miracle, but can a Pope be anything else than the witness to the possibility of miracles?

It is understandable that those who do not believe in miracles will see war as the only solution to certain conflicts, but should not those who identify themselves as Christians or other believers seek to strengthen the desire for peace in the heart of all men and women of good will? This is how the Pope understands his primary responsibility, as a witness to a hope based on his experience of faith.

In the end, it is a matter of believing in divine grace (and therefore in the Church's presence) as a real factor guiding human history. The opposite to confidence in the power of grace is dependence on the power of human ideals, but human ideals by themselves cannot overcome our moral weakness. Instead, they become "causes" that never reach their intended goals. And when pursued by violent means, these ideals become harmful, even if they are just, theoretically.This is why the Pope says that war, even a just war, is in the end a defeat for man. The mission of the Church in the world is to hold on to the possibilities opened up by grace, to educate all in living as witnesses to the Peace that the world cannot achieve by itself-neither through diplomacy nor through war, however just. 

October 8, 2003

MSGR. LORENZEO ALBACETE is National Director of the ecclesial movement Communion & Liberation. Reprinted with permission from Traces magazine. All rights reserved.

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10.19.03   davesloan says:
This article really helped me to clarify my thinking about the war. The temptation for me has been apply solely the standards of patriotism and of reason. There must be more. Christian values must be applied as well--not instead of other values, but as the completion of other values. In other words, it is not not enough to weigh the facts from a purely objective standpoint, and thereby derive a conclusion. I must also ask, from a Christian standpoint, whether everything possible has been done for the sake of peace.Peace, for Christians, is not merely a passive value, an absence of conflict. Peace is an active call to infuse the world the light of the one who is peace.I understand now, and agree that we did not do all we could do to bring peace, before bringing war.Peace,Dave

10.08.03   Godspy says:
Is John Paul II the Catholic Ghandi? Does he want Catholics to be pacifists?

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