Strategic Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation: The Catholic Contribution to Peace

April, 2006
This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Introduction: The Catholic Contribution to Peace

"The linking of religion to violence in many conflict settings around the world today, and a re-reading of such linkages made in the past, have prompted some to say that religion's enduring connection to violence is as a source of legitimation of violence rather than the resolution of it," argues Robert J. Schreiter, a professor of theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, in Artisans of Peace: Grassroots Peacemaking among Christian Communities.[1] Certainly, those who believe that religion is a problem to be overcome, not an effective contributor to conflict transformation, can point to numerous examples throughout the world where it has indeed fueled tensions between communities. However, this would be to ignore the work of a growing number of religiously-inspired peacebuilders. Emerging from a variety of traditions, they not only assert that their faith can be a constructive force in rebuilding war-torn communities, but have shown through their efforts that religious individuals and institutions can play a positive role in conflict transformation. In particular, over the past half-century, the Roman Catholic Church has evolved into a religious institution at the forefront of the struggle to promote peace and justice based on the dignity of the human person. This brief essay will sketch the church's internal development as an advocate for human rights, outline some of its past and current peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts, and discuss challenges still confronting it as it strives to be a prophetic voice for a "just peace."

What is Peace? The Church Reflects

While the roots of modern Catholic social justice teaching were planted in Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical entitled Rerum novarum, strongly articulated Catholic notions of peace and justice grounded in human rights did not germinate more fully until the mid-twentieth century with the Second Vatican Council.[2] Drew Christiansen, former director of the Office of International Justice and Peace and current editor of America magazine, comments that it was Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in terris in 1963 that was instrumental in shaping the church and its current peacemaking orientation.[3] The encyclical illuminated the church's evolving, expansive understanding of peace, basing the Catholic vision in four elements. Christiansen identifies these as human rights, development, solidarity, and world order.[4] Foremost amongst these pillars was the protection of human rights, with the church proclaiming:

Any well-regulated and productive association of men [and women] in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.[5]

The call to help realize this ambitious vision was extended to all Catholics, not only the leaders of the hierarchy. This was consistent with Vatican II's more inclusive understanding of the church, which encouraged the involvement of members of both the clerical and lay communities. Pacem en terris asserted:

Hence among the very serious obligations incumbent upon men [and women] of high principles, we must include the task of establishing new relationships in human society, the mastery and guidance of truth, justice, charity and freedom--relations between individual citizens, between citizens and their respective states, between states, and finally between individuals, families, intermediate associations and states on the one hand, and the world community on the other. There is surely no one who will not consider this a most exalted task, for it is one which is able to bring about true peace in accordance with divinely established order.[6]

Dignitatis humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom), promulgated on December 7, 1965 by Pope Paul VI, further advanced a vision of peace and justice built upon the respect for human rights, adding religious freedom to the list of rights to which each and every individual was entitled. According to R. Scott Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, the encyclical was of supreme importance because it "ratified the postwar [World War II] development of Roman Catholic doctrine on the inviolable rights of the human person and on the constitutional order of society." [7] This internal development within the church had substantial ramifications, signaling the revolutionary shift in the church's thinking. In the past, the church had often allied itself with power to protect its institutional privileges, condemning the very rights it was embracing in the Vatican II period. Popes Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII had condemned separation of church and state, religious freedom, freedom of the press, and other rights enjoyed by those in liberal democracies. As Appleby succinctly notes, "the Catholic church had little patience with the human rights reforms and democratic regimes of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."[8]

However, the developments in the period leading up to, through, and beyond Vatican II showed that the Church was committed to building a peace linked to the protection of fundamental human rights. Subsequent papal announcements including Lumen gentium, Dignitatis humanae, Gaudium et spes, Populorum progressio, and Evangelii nuntiandi by Paul VI and those of John Paul II including Redemptor hominis, Sollicitudo rei socialis, Centesimus annus, and Evangelium vitae, further sought to provide greater clarity in articulating an authentic vision of peace.

It was not only in the papal pronouncements that the radical shift was communicated. Further theological reflection focused on how to realize the Church's vision, rooting it firmly in scripture and the example of Jesus. Liberation theology emerged from the heart of Latin America as a voice for the oppressed, and although it was sometimes silenced for purported Marxist indulgences, the church has not regressed into pre-Vatican II alliances with repressive regimes. Indeed, it has begun to seek an authentic "theology of just peace."

In attempting to further elaborate the Church's understanding of a peace, Andrea Bartoli, vice president of the community of St. Egidio and a faculty member at Columbia University, and others have discussed varying types of peace and to which version the Church must aspire. The first, eirene, is a Greek term connoting the simple absence of warfare. A second, pax, is a Latin word used to define a condition in which war is avoided due to the superior strength of one community over another.[9] These, however, are not the types of peace which a "theology of just peace" aims to achieve. Instead, it finds its model of peace in the Jewish term shalom, which Bartoli notes "refers to a condition of wholeness, of complete welfare that encompasses the whole person. It pertains to the individual, the community, and the web of relationships in which a person lives."[10]

Robert J. Schweiter has also looked to build a "theology of just peace," finding inspiration in both the Old and New Testaments in formulating two peace typologies. He labels the first a theology of "peace revealed" and the latter a "peace redeemed."[11] He writes:

"The first theology of peace finds its roots in the soil out of which Israel came forth and remains the enduring fundamental for a theology of peace for both Jews and Christians. The second theology of peace grows out of Christians' experience of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the implications those events hold for our understanding of God's work in the world toward peace."[12]

Unsurprisingly, Schweiter's approach mirrors that of Bartoli. He also looks to the concept of shalom as to the state that Christians should aspire. Schweiter writes:

We are intended, as creatures of God, to live in right relationship with one another. The result of living in right relationship is that we fulfill our destiny as human beings. Inasmuch as we are created in God's image, that pattern of right relationships mirrors the very life of God. The Jewish concept of shalom, the peace and well-being which is the fruit of living in right relationship with God, one another, and God's creation, flows from this idea.[13]

Building upon the Old Testament example of shalom and the experience of the ancient Israelites' covenant relationship with God, Schweiter adds to this the Christian experience of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this, he finds the ultimate embodiment of peace and reconciliation in the example of the risen savior. Schweiter asserts:

In the Christian scriptures, this experience of peace finds its clearest expression in the story of Jesus. He preached the forgiveness of sins and the advent of God's rule over the earth. He brings about the turning point from the past into a new future in his own body--in his suffering and death, and God's raising him up to a new and transfigured life. Christ is indeed our peace, a peace from God greater than the Pax Romana, which ruled the world in which Jesus and his disciples lived. If shalom was ultimately a gift from God because it represented the life of God, the peace of Christ showed the divine origins of that condition even more clearly.[14]

Thus, as Christ is the epitome of peace through his life, death, and resurrection, so too are Christians called to embody peace. "Blessed are the peacemakers," thus must take on a special urgency to each and every believer. Above all, peacemakers must contribute to communities where just peace abounds, cultivating what has been often called a "culture of life." On this calling, Schweiter writes:

What this means concretely is that a social space must be created within our communities that is at once both safe and hospitable for human relationships and human community. Spaces are safe in that they promote relationships of trust. Trust is the basic building block of human society. Without trust, there can be no sense of safety and security. Conflict and war are about the breakdown of trust. Rebuilding those bonds is essential for the reconstruction of society."[15]

It is to this culture of life to which the Church has increasingly turned its attention. Positively, the cumulative effect of the teachings of the papacy and other theological reflections like those of Bartoli and Schweiter on the meaning of peace has been to increasingly identify it with the inherent dignity of the individual, the protection of human rights, and the intrinsic link between peace and justice. As Pope Paul VI aptly noted, "If you want peace work for justice."

Catholic Peacemaking and Peacebuilding Activity

It is widely regarded that in attempting to bring about its vision of peace, the Church has been much more active in what can be considered peacemaking activities rather than in peacebuilding per se. Appleby defines peacemaking as those efforts which aim to bring an end to the specifically violent content of a conflict which can clear the ground for more intensive, long-term peacebuilding efforts. He writes that peacemaking "refers to the tradition of papal and episcopal internationalism characterized by diplomatic negotiation, mediation, concordats, and settlements conducted primarily at elite governmental and ecclesial levels," while peacebuilders "make peace real--they work over months, years, and decades, that is, to sustain the peace, to transform the nonviolent conflict resolution, and where possible, reconciliation, into a way of life."[16]

There are myriad examples of the church at its upper levels attempting to make peace between parties in conflict. From Benedict XV's efforts to try to bring a close to World War I to the influence of Pope John Paul II in helping agitate for the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, the papacy has finely sharpened its peacemaking tools. Christiansen comments that is has not only been the Holy See that has worked tirelessly for peace, but also episcopal conferences, and individual bishops acting as mediators.[17]

One specific example involving the work of episcopal conferences was that of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' influential pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace in 1983, "which played a major role in forming public opinion in favor of halting the nuclear arms build-up." A prime case of an individual bishop using his authority and moral credibility was the courageous effort of Bishop Samuel Ruiz in Chiapas in bringing the Mexican government and Zapatista rebels to the negotiating table in 1994.[18]

It has not only been those within the church hierarchy who have made significant contributions to peacemaking. Lay individuals and organizations have made their own important contributions too. One such group is the Community of St. Egidio. Founded in 1968, it now counts over 30,000 members in more than forty countries.[19] Building local and international networks and establishing itself as a credible mediator, the group grounds its work in its love of the poor and its Catholic identity. The United States Institute of Peace remarks:

It is piety and love of the poor that is central to the community's commitment to peacemaking. The poor are the ones who suffer most from war and to serve the poor therefore means to be a peacemaker. The members of the community have a strong sense of responsibility to those in pain and suffering and seek out person-to-person contact, which is central to its peacemaking philosophy. Beyond this commitment to personal relationship lies its conviction that peace comes through dialogue and understanding.[20]

It has been its open attitude that has contributed to the outstanding success the community has enjoyed in asserting itself as an effective, trusted mediator in areas of conflict. In particular, it played a vital role in bringing civil war to an end in Mozambique, and also assisting in creating peace negotiations in several countries including Albania, Algeria, Burundi, Guatemala, Kosovo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.[21]

Thus, the Catholic Church's role in facilitating peace talks is indubitable, both among the highest levels of Vatican authority and dedicated lay communities. However, it has been less active in developing successful long-term peacebuilding methods. This traditional lack of activity has begun to change, however. Appleby writes:

Catholic peacebuilders, furthermore, are now present at every stage of the conflict transformation cycle: they work in peace education

and conflict prevention, in mediation and conflict resolution, in post-settlement social reconstruction, and in the academies and courts where human rights, including religious freedom, are given theoretical depth and cross-cultural grounding. The training grounds for Catholics seeking entry into this emerging world of peacebuilding increasingly include the local parish and inner-city ministries of reconciliation and conflict resolution.[22]

At the vanguard of Catholic peacebuilding activities is Catholic Relief Services. Founded by the bishops of the United States to help the poor and marginalized throughout the world in 1943, the agency now works in nearly 100 countries on five continents.[23] Beginning as an organization focusing largely on development issues and international aid, it has now positioned itself as a force for building peace in specific local contexts. Numerous scholars trace the genesis of this orientation to the agency's experience in Rwanda. The United States Institute of Peace reports: No single recent event has affected the direction of CRS so deeply as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. CRS had years of experience in Rwanda and was highly regarded, but was totally unprepared for the genocide and had not devoted resources and energy to forestalling this slaughter. The aftershock of the Rwanda genocide led CRS to apply a social analysis inspired by justice principles to every future activity of CRS. Every program is now assessed in terms of its potential impact on justice and peace.[24]

Since the mid-90's, Catholic Relief Services has subsequently invested an increasing amount of its resources on peacebuilding in conflict ridden areas, "drawing upon a rich tradition of Scripture and Catholic Social Teaching, which serve as the foundation for CRS' guiding principles."[25] By 2001, the organization had implemented 61 peacebuilding projects, developing programs to "exist at all stages of a conflict's life cycle, from prevention through trauma healing."[26]

One of the areas that CRS has focused particular attention on is reconciliation training. It helped finance and lent expertise to the formation of Caritas International's Working for Reconciliation: A Caritas Handbook, and has proven itself a leader in Catholic peacebuilding efforts globally.[27] Quoting from the handbook, Appleby writes:

The manual and handbook reflect the new cultural orientation of the transnational Catholic social service apostolate: the Church now strives to extend its preferential option for the poor beyond relief and charity (phase one) and beyond social and economic development (phase two), toward "reconciliation"-"a longer-term process of overcoming hostility and mistrust between divided peoples...[and of promoting the consolidation of constructive social relations between different groups of the population, including parties to the conflict.[28]

Thus, the Catholic Church has much to be proud of in contributing to peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts worldwide, joining many other Christians from a variety of denominations who struggle to live out the dictates of their faith in a way that helps build local, regional, national, and international mechanisms conducive to peace. As Bartoli asserts:

In today's world, it is impossible to find a single conflict in the world in which there is no Christian serving victims, defending human rights, educating children and adults, and defending the space of civil society from the oppression of violence. Christianity offers a remarkable network of people across the world. The network is transnational, constantly moving peoples, goods, services, information, and ideas, making much of today's peacebuilding possible.[29]

Conclusion: Challenges Remain

The progress that the Church has made in positioning itself as an authentic voice for peace, and as an effective actor in peacemaking and peacebuilding activities is laudable. Nonetheless, the Church still has a distance to go. Much success has been among elite level actors, and a more unified practice of peacebuilding that successfully connects local to national and international actors has proved elusive. (See Levels of Action and the Scale-up Problem for more information on this issue.) As Mary Ann Cejka and Thomas Bamat note:

The limited success achieved by local grassroots peacemakers could be significantly enhanced by things like greater resources, more training and formation, greater regional or national networking, better religious or ethical education, and bridges over the "chasm" that lies between grassroots peacebuilding efforts and those carried out by elites.[30]

It is therefore imperative that those at local levels are equipped with the resources necessary to implement the vision of peace that the Church has so eloquently articulated since Vatican II. If "all politics is local," organizations at the grassroots level need to be supported robustly and more focus must be placed on local answers that build upon the strengths of those located in the midst of conflict. Unfortunately, as Appleby notes:

If the Catholic vision of peace, as articulated over the last forty years, emphasizes human rights, development, solidarity, and world order, it has placed far less emphasis on culturally resonant conflict resolution and transformation at the local and regional levels.[31]

Thus, challenges remain, especially in the coordination of activities and the empowerment of local agents of change. However, the prognosis for the future is hopeful as the Church continues to reassess its mission in the context of a 21st century world. In an increasingly pluralistic world, it must continue to develop cross-denomination and inter-religious relationships with those who share its vision of a positive peace. It must also form alliances with those who have no faith commitment. While making and building peace in war and conflict torn areas will always be difficult, the church continues to improve its capacity to serve a positive role in conflict transformation. If this progress in the 21st century is to be enhanced, it must remember the words of the Prophet Micah, who reminds the Church and its members that they must always "do justice, and love kindness," and perhaps most importantly, "to walk humbly with our God." [32]

[1] Schreiter, Robert J., C.PP.S., "Grassroots Artisans of Peace." In Artisans of Peace: Grassroots Peacemaking among Christian Communities, eds. Thomas Bamat and Mary Ann Cejka (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2003): 287-300. 287-88.
[2] For a brief outline of Catholic Social Teaching and its principles refer to: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching." 1999. ( wp/projects/socialteaching/excerpt.htm) link as of: 3/6/06.
[3] For a brief biography of Christiansen, go to: ( 050506.htm)
[4] Christiansen, Rev. Drew, S.J.. "Catholic Peacemaking: From Pacem in terris to Centesimus annus." 2001. 3. (http://www.resto link as of: 3/6/06.
[5] Pope John Paul XXIII. Pacem in terris. 9. 1963. ( hf-j-xxiii-enc-11041963-pacem-en.html) link as of 3/6/06.
[6] Ibid, 163.
[7] Appleby, R. Scott. "Disciples of the Prince of Peace? Christian Resources for Nonviolent Peacebuilding." In Beyond Violence: Religious Sources of Social Transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. James L. Heft, S.M. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004) 113-144. 123.
[8] Ibid, 120.
[9] For a fuller discussion of these terms, see: Bartoli, Andrea. "Christianity and Peacebuilding." In Religion and Peacebuilding, eds. Harold Coward and Gordon S. Smith (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2004) 147-168. 154-55.
[10] Ibid, 155.
[11] Schweiter, 288.
[12] Ibid, 288.
[13] Ibid, 289.
[14] Ibid, 291.
[15] Ibid, 298.
[16] Appleby, 132, 135.
[17] Christiansen, 10-11.
[18] Christiansen, 11.
[19] United States Institute of Peace. "Catholic Contributions to International Peace." Special Report 69. 2001.10. ( ts/sr69.html) link as of 3/6/06.
[20] Ibid, 10.
[21] Ibid, 10.
[22] Appleby, 137.
[23] To learn more about Catholic Relief Services, visit its web site at
[24] United States Institute of Peace, 9.
[25] Catholic Relief Services. "About Us: Who We Are." ( us/who-we-are/what-we-believe.cfm) link as of 3/6/06.
[26] United States Institute of Peace, 9.
[27] For a listing of CRS publications on peacebuilding, visit: ( ebuilding.cfm) link as of 3/6/06
[28] Appleby, 131.
[29] Bartoli, 159.
[30] Bamat, Thomas and Mary Ann Cejka. "Invisible Artisans of Peace." In Artisans of Peace: Grassroots Peacemaking among Christian Communities, eds. Thomas Bamat and Mary Ann Cejka (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2003): 1-18. 16.
[31] Appleby, 133.
[32] Micah 6:8