Among the books I would list as must-read but too-little-known is Ronald G. Musto’s The Catholic Peace Tradition (Orbis, 1986; Peace Books, 2002). A history of 2000 years of Catholic peacemaking, it is a vast survey from which I never cease to learn. The sheer accumulation of information gives the lie to the widespread and mistaken belief that “the just war has been in possession” (of official Catholic thought) since the time of Augustine. Well after Augustine’s time, as Musto shows, pacifism and nonviolence had eminent spokesmen. In the East, they included the great Cappadocians like Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzen; and in the West, Lactantius, Hilary of Poitiers and Gregory the Great.
Protests against Christian militarism were often widespread. In the East, bishops and monks led nonviolent demonstrations against the emperor’s military excesses, and in the West, there were numerous protests against forced conversion of barbarians to Christianity. Every schoolchild learns about the Peace of God and the Truce of God; but there were also popular peace movements that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people and achieved reconciliation between legendary antagonists like Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX. At Verona in 1233, for example, the movement called the Great Alleluia brought 400,000 people “to demonstrate for the end of war, for peace and for reconciliation.” In 1399 the mass movement known as the Bianchi (people dressed in white) brought 200,000 pilgrims to Rome from all classes and from many parts of Italy to plead for peace.
In our own day, the peacemaking charism has flourished in a variety of Catholic groups: Pax Christi International, Focolare, the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Catholic Peace Fellowship, to name just a few. Pax Christi, founded following World War II to reconcile the French and German peoples, quickly became a European and then an international peace movement promoting peace education and disarmament. In the early 1980’s, bishop members of Pax Christi USA and its lay members played a key role in the articulation of the bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear war and deterrence, The Challenge of Peace. Among Pax Christi’s contributions was the recognition that the Catholic peacemaking tradition was informed by the twin streams of nonviolence and the just war. It can be argued that the enormous influence (and later authority) of the pastoral came about precisely because the bishops invited wide public involvement in the drafting process, with the three early drafts of the letter openly debated in the media, in church halls and in university lecture rooms. In the end, even people who disagreed with some of the letter’s conclusions accepted and promoted it, because they had been part of the process. Under pressure from the Vatican and some of its own members, in the late 1980’s the bishops’ conference abandoned the practice of open consultation.
In the years that followed, the bishops adopted a closed process, though with wide but select consultation. Pax Christi, nonetheless, kept alive the conviction that popular participation could produce a richer, better received teaching on peace, and one that friends of P.C.U.S.A. would say is closer to the peace vision of the Gospel and less accommodating to the preoccupations of government decision makers and policy wonks. Thus emerged the notion of a people’s peace pastoral, a peace statement drafted from the ground up. As the proposal was discussed, however, Pax Christi USA was also doing some self-examination. Its leaders realized the organization’s base was a narrow one: largely white, middle class and well educated. It needed to be more representative and accountable to marginalized communities, especially the poor and people of color; so P.C.U.S.A. sought allies across the Catholic community.
Today the ambition of drafting a pastoral has become a “peace initiative” supported by 21 Catholic organizations, including groups as diverse as the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Catholic Committee for Appalachia, the National Black Catholic Congress, Network and the Tekawitha Conference. It describes itself as “a catholic collaboration to articulate the challenges of peacemaking in the 21st century.” It is a true process, inviting participants to pray and reflect together on their vision of peace, the challenges of peace in our age and the means to cultivate peace in the Catholic community.
The initiative’s guidebook for small group prayer and discussions, Called to Something New: A People’s Peace Initiative, is available in English and Spanish from Pax Christi USA in Erie, Pa. (814-453-4955, ext. 231); e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.