I am glad to have this opportunity to explore the contributions that religious organizations can make to peace. In my brief remarks I will highlight four building blocks of Catholic engagement in peacebuilding: 1) our faith and teaching; 2) our interfaith partnerships; 3) our institutional presence; and 4) our leaders and people.
The first building block is Catholic faith and teaching. As the U.S. Bishops wrote in The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, “Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus.” (#333)
At the same time, we must humbly confess that we have not always lived up to this high calling. As the new Millennium approached, our beloved Pope John Paul II called “the Church [to] become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel….” In seeking God’s forgiveness, the Holy Father specifically referred to “intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth.” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, nos. 33, 35)
The Church publicly modeled for the world the confession of truth and the acceptance of responsibility for past wrongs as steps on the path to reconciliation. Without reconciliation our world is trapped in endless cycles of revenge and retribution.
The Church also knows that peace does not consist simply in the absence of war or violence. The underlying causes of conflicts must be addressed. Peace can only be built on the firm foundation of justice. The Church speaks of creating “an authentic culture of peace” in which “the defense and promotion of human rights is essential for the building up of a peaceful society.” (Compendium, nos. 494, 495) The newly published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church outlines a rich tradition of Catholic teaching that the Church has to offer the world.
A second building block for peace is interreligious partnerships. Since the Second Vatican Council’s publication of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, whose fortieth anniversary we mark this year, the Catholic Church has committed itself to interreligious “dialogue and collaboration.” (No. 2)
Perhaps the most powerful symbol of how this dialogue has served the cause of peacebuilding is the Day of Prayer for Peace that took place in Assisi on January 24, 2002. At that historic gathering convened by Pope John Paul II, religious leaders from around the world adopted a “Decalogue of Assisi for Peace” that included these declarations:
- “We commit ourselves to proclaiming our firm conviction that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion….”
“We commit ourselves to forgiving one another for past and present errors and prejudices…, and to learn from the past that peace without justice is no true peace.”
These interreligious leaders support a two-state solution that provides for a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel living side by side in peace. The leaders of the three Abrahamic religious have agreed to Twelve Urgent Steps for Peace and are willing to hold officials of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States accountable for achieving a just peace.
A third building block for peace is the Catholic Church’s significant institutional presence in many countries around the globe. Our parishes, schools, universities, health facilities, development agencies, and a host of other institutions give us an “on the ground” capacity for peacebuilding.
For example, in Africa the Catholic Church operates more than 15,000 social welfare institutions, including 964 hospitals and 791 orphanages. In Central and South America the Church has approximately 35,000 social welfare institutions.1 In addition, the Catholic Church educates more than 12 million students in 32,000 elementary schools and 3 million in 8,000 secondary schools in Africa and operates 16,000 elementary schools and 9,000 secondary schools in Central and South America.2
Much of the Church’s work in developing countries happens under the auspices of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development and social service organizations working in over 200 countries and territories. Together with the Church’s extensive network of dioceses and parishes, the Church has access to vast numbers of communities and peoples and has extensive experience with meeting basic human needs, including the need for security.
I have witnessed first hand the Church employing its institutional assets in peacebuilding on a large scale. For many years now I have visited countries in Africa in support of a major initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to strengthen solidarity with the Church in Africa. Time and again, in country after country, I have been impressed with the institutional presence of the Church and with its capacity to contribute to peacebuilding.
A case is point is Burundi. This past July I visited Burundi to meet with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference there regarding a joint project of our episcopal conferences that aims at “Creating a Culture of Peace in Burundi.” The three major components of this project include: creation and implementation of peace education programs for school-aged children; a sports and cultural activities program that builds dialogue and trust among youth; and trauma healing services. Catholic Relief Services, the relief and development agency of our U.S. Bishops’ Conference, with support from the US Agency for International Development, is playing a key role in supporting this impressive initiative.
A recent news account noted: “The biggest sponsor of soccer matches in Burundi these days is not a beer company or an auto manufacturer, but the Catholic Church. But the church-backed soccer is not all fun and games: It is a way to help Burundians move past their decades of interethnic killings and war and to develop trust between peoples more used to fighting it out in the bush than on the soccer field.”3
Caritas agencies and Catholic institutions in dioceses in many areas of conflict have developed similar programs of peacebuilding. In 2002 the Catholic Peacebuilding Network (CPN) was established to encourage and support these efforts. The Network was spearheaded by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Catholic Relief Services, with the active involvement of Maryknoll, the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Center for International Social Development at the Catholic University of America, and the Sant' Egidio Community in the United States. While originating within the United States, the Network is collaborating with Catholic peacebuilders around the world.
The Catholic Peacebuilding Network is a voluntary network of practitioners, academics, clergy and laity that seeks to enhance the study and practice of Catholic peacebuilding, especially at the local level. While it is Catholic, the Network believes that authentic and effective Catholic peacebuilding involves dialogue and collaboration with those of other religious traditions and others committed to peace.
The Church’s fourth building block for peace consists of our leaders and our people. We are all aware of legacies of Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. Each of them made major contributions to the Church’s social teaching on peace and justice, and each raised their voices in the defense of peace. It is significant that our present Holy Father took the name of Benedict XV, "the peace pope" who was the first pope to utter the cry, “War never again!”
The list of Catholic leaders who have pursued the vocation of peacebuilding is too long to recite here, but it certainly includes Archbishop Michael Francis of Liberia, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez of Honduras, the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Slavador, and many others. In the international work of the Holy See and the efforts of national and regional bishops’ conferences, the cause of peace with justice has been advanced through teaching and advocacy.
Beyond the hierarchy, numerous priests, religious and lay Catholic leaders have labored for peace. In particular we are aware of the remarkable work of Pax Christi International and the Community of Sant' Egidio. Their combined memberships of over 110,000 persons testifies to the vitality of the Catholic vocation to peacemaking.
Of course there are also notable Catholic political and civic leaders who have sought to build peace. Lech Walesa of Poland and Corazon Aquino of the Philippines come immediately to mind, but there are many other political, civic and labor leaders too numerous to mention.
It is important to note that the Church not only brings prominent leaders to the task of peacebuilding; the Church also brings millions of ordinary Catholics who make extraordinary commitments to peacebuilding. Without the courage, determination and faith of millions of people in Poland, the Philippines and many other places of conflict and oppression, the advancement of peace with justice would not be possible.
This brief survey of some of the Catholic building blocks for peace is certainly incomplete. I cannot do justice to the breath or depth of Catholic peacebuilding in the short time allotted to me, but I hope my remarks make it clear that peacebuilding is anchored deeply in the life and mission of our Church. Pope Benedict XVI has clearly reaffirmed the central place of peacebuilding in his first general audience when our Holy Father declared:
- “…I would like to place my ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony between persons and peoples, since I am profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is first and foremost a gift of God … to pray for, safeguard and build up, day after day, with the help of all.”
- Statistical Yearbook of the Church, 2002, pp. 354-364
- Ibid. p. 279
- “Truth process not set, but Burundi's church begins reconciliation,” by Evan Weinberger, Catholic News Service, October 4, 2005.