Part 12: The Preferential Option for Peace
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Mar 5, 2015)
The following is the twelfth installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.
This brings us to the fourth and final — absolutely essential — Catholic social principle we need to take on board. It's not a phrase officially used by the Church in the Catechism or the Compendium, but it sums up the principle pretty well (and anyway, it makes a nice set with "the preferential option for the poor," and "the preferential option for the local, the voluntary, and the family" that we discussed earlier in this series).
4. The Preferential Option for Peace
In a nutshell, this principle means that in any and every conflict situation, Catholics are obliged to seek, first of all and above all, for non-violent and non-coercive ways of resolving the conflict, especially through attempts at honest and respectful dialogue. This is the method of conflict resolution that is most in keeping with the fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching and of all striving for social justice: namely, the dignity of every human being.
Resort to coercive measures, and especially the use of force, must always be a last resort when all other means of resolving a conflict would clearly be impractical or ineffective. If dialogue, diplomacy, prayer, patience, and even lesser forms of pressure (such as diplomatic and economic sanctions) can be sufficient to stop an aggressor from committing or continuing grievous injustice, then such measures are always to be preferred to recourse to arms and the horrors of war.
In his book Catholicism (which I have had occasion to criticize a few times in this series — but overall, it is a very fine work!), Fr. Robert Barron calls our attention to another way the Church encourages us to "think out of the box" — this time with regard to "peace-making."
It is a way of "mirroring-back" to an aggressor the deep injustice of what he or she is doing. The great promise of this approach is that it might not only stop the violence, but even transform the heart of the perpetrator of it. Father Barron writes:
Some contemporary examples might illuminate these dynamics more clearly.
A story is told of Mother Teresa, the saint of the Calcutta slums. She went with a small child to a local baker and begged some bread for the hungry lad. The baker spat full in Mother Teresa's face. Undaunted, she calmly replied, "Thank you for that gift to me. Do you have anything for the child?"
Desmond Tutu [a black man, and an Anglican Archbishop in South Africa], when he was a young priest in Johannesburg, was making his way along a wooden sidewalk, raised above the muddy street. He came to a narrow section of the sidewalk and was met by a white man coming from the other direction. The man said to Tutu: "Get off the sidewalk; I don't make way for gorillas." Tutu stepped aside, gestured broadly, and responded, "I do!"
The third example I offer is by far the most powerful, at least if we measure in terms of practical consequences. On June 2, 1979, Pope John Paul II came to Victory Square in the heart of Warsaw and celebrated Mass in the presence of hundreds of thousands of people and the entire Polish Communist government. During his homily the pope spoke of God, of freedom, and of human rights — all topics frowned upon by the Communist regime. As the pope preached, the people began to chant, "We want God; we want God," and did not stop for an astonishing fifteen minutes. It is said that during this demonstration of the people's will, John Paul turned toward the Polish government officials and gestured, as if to say, "Do you hear?" Prescient commentators at the time saw that Communism, at least in Poland, was from that moment, moribund. In point of fact, the government did fall, and a few years later the entire Soviet Communist Empire disintegrated with barely a shot fired. If someone had laid out that scenario to me when I was coming of age in the 1970s, I would never have believed it.
In all three cases, an offended person responded, neither with counter-violence nor with flight, but rather with a provocative gesture meant to draw the aggressor into a new spiritual consciousness (Catholicism, pp. 50-51).
Of course, this is not always possible, nor always effective. Sometimes violent aggressors (e.g., dictators bent on conquest or terrorists) are just "too far gone" to be able to respond to such gestures. That's why the Church's position on peace-making is not pacifism, or "peace at any price." The Catechism clearly teaches that we have a right to defend ourselves from grievous harm, and even a duty in charity to defend the innocent who are not able to defend themselves against unjust attack. Thus, if an aggressor is truly relentless, and non-coercive and non-violent means cannot avail to stop the aggression — or it's just too late even to try — then states have the moral duty to intervene, if need be, by force of arms, using the minimum force necessary to stop the spread of grievous injustice and violations of the dignity of human life. Moreover, in the use of such lethal force, states must also make every reasonable effort to distinguish between "combatants" and innocent "non-combatants." This whole teaching on avoiding war, as well as what constitutes legitimate defence and a just recourse to arms, is covered in the Catechism, sections 2263-2267 and 2307-2317 , and in the Compendium, section 500.
Still, the underlying principle of "the preferential option for peace" means that any recourse to arms must always be a last resort, because even when it succeeds in stopping grievous injustice, it often leaves in its wake sufferings and miseries of all kinds, and sometimes even sows the seeds of bitterness, and thereby of future conflicts. At best, a just recourse to arms as an act of "legitimate defence" can only be "damage control," not a lasting solution to the problems of the world community (for the basis for more lasting solutions, see the first three essential Catholic social principles that we covered in this series: the dignity of every human life, solidarity, and subsidiarity!).
Sadly, such "damage control" sometimes has to be done, and all at the cost of great heroism and sacrifice by those in our armed forces. Many Catholics today seem to believe that there is almost never any justification for a recourse to arms, but I would argue that, by and large, it was morally justified in a number of cases over the past half-century or so, e.g., in the Allied attempt to stop the spread of horrific tyranny and genocide by the Nazis in World War II; in the Korean War, to keep the people of South Korea from falling under the tyranny of the Communist masters to the north; by coalition forces in the first Iraq war in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein invaded and brutalized Kuwait and threatened the world's oil supply in the Persian Gulf; in the Allied intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, to put a stop to the brutal "ethnic cleansing" of religious and ethnic minorities in the region (an armed, humanitarian intervention actually called for by St. John Paul II), and in the Afghan War, to dismantle the state-sponsored terrorism that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. And I am fairly convinced that armed intervention is needed now to stop the widespread human rights abuse and conquest being perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East.
Of course, there is room for disagreement among Catholics about the moral legitimacy of recourse to arms in particular cases (even in the cases I just mentioned). As we said last weeks, such opinions fall into the realm of "prudential judgments," not definitive Catholic doctrines. The important thing is that Catholics do not fail to use their prayers, their petitions, their voice, and their votes to stand up for the preferential option for peace in the world: a world which is a veritable powder keg of potentially violent conflicts of all kinds.
As we come to the end of this series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice, you may be asking yourself: why did Dr. Stackpole spend the last third of it on Divine Mercy and Social Justice? Isn't that just "politics"? What does this have to do with St. Faustina and Divine Mercy?
To be sure, it was not St. Faustina's charism to address social justice and peace issues indepth. Nevertheless, as I have tried to show, both from Scripture and from the documents of the Church's magisterium, it is not just partisan or party "politics" either: It is faithfulness to basic Catholic social principles which, if truly followed, would really enable our merciful Lord to be acknowledged, and effectively reign as Lord of all. In addition, of course, there must be vigorous efforts to spread the gospel message of the saving death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ to the lost and the broken-hearted. The God of Mercy not only cares about all of this at once, Scripture says, He is even zealous for it, for it is all an integral part of His merciful plan for the world. Just look at what Isaiah 9 tells us in the famous prophecy of the first coming of the Messiah:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of his father David, to order and establish it with justice and with judgment, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform this (Is 9:6-7, KJV; emphasis added).
Some of my readers also may be wondering if, by my exhortations to "Get With the Program" — that is, the program of the Church's teachings on social justice and peace — I am really insisting that every Catholic should become a social activist. "So, Dr. S, are we all to join justice and peace groups, and hit the pavement with posters and placards about various government policies, or get ourselves arrested protesting outside of abortuaries?"
No, I am not saying that at all — nor is the Church. But some of us have been given special charisms to take major, active roles in this area of the Church's mission, so please be open to that call: It just might be for you! Whether or not you are called to deep involvement in the political arena, all of us are called to do what we can to promote justice and peace, not only in our families and local communities (our first priority), but even in the wider world (of which we are a part) insofar as our life circumstances permit.
There are certainly some things that almost all of us can do. Who among us cannot pray for justice and peace? (If you follow the Holy Father's monthly Apostleship of Prayer intentions through the Friends of Mercy or the Thirteenth of the Month Club, you will be guided to do so on a regular basis). Who among us cannot try to keep ourselves properly informed about the main issues related to social justice and peace by reading about them in the Catholic press (for starters), and then, when asked to do so, signing petitions or making donations to further the cause of promoting and protecting the dignity of every human life? When the time comes for us to cast our votes, who among us cannot make every effort to look past partisan party politics and keep the Catholic principle of the dignity of human life foremost in our minds — our top priority — along with the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and the preferential option for peace? At a minimum, these are the things that St. John Paul II was referring to, I think, when he made that famous statement (quoted last week), "It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle."
Finally, let's remember that our first social responsibility is always to promote peaceful conflict resolution and care for those in need right in our own homes and wider families, right in the local communities in which we live. Our family members, relatives, friends, and local communities have been entrusted to us in a special way by divine providence. It is a kind of blasphemy to try to "change the world" if to do so we are "stepping over needy Lazarus at our very doorstep" (Lk 16:19-21). What we do not want is to become like the character Lucy in the famous Peanuts cartoon series. One of her famous sayings was "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand!"
If you can be a helpful and effective member of justice, peace, and pro-life groups, then by all means do so! Our Lord has the needs of the whole world on His merciful Heart, and the sufferings of the poor and hungry, the unborn and the terminally ill, are especially on His Heart every day. But really the question is; "What is on His Heart for YOU to do to make a difference in this world?" For each one of us, it begins with seeking justice and peace, and the dignity of every human life right in midst of our own families — and then radiates out from there. For some of us, called to special service in public activism for life, justice, and peace, it may shine out even farther still.
Read the series to date.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.