Catholic peace traditions

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"There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions." Hans Küng, Swiss Catholic priest, theologian, and author.

Catholic peace traditions begin with the ideas and practice of peace in the Catholic Church from its biblical and classical origins to its current practice into the 21st century. Because of its long history and breadth of geographical and cultural diversity, this Catholic tradition encompasses many strains and influences of both religious and secular peacemaking and many aspects of Christian pacifism, just war and nonviolence.

The history of peacemaking in the Catholic tradition depends on defining and understanding the concept of "peace" in its past and present usage, based on contemporary dictionary definitions, the Greek word for peace, eirene, Roman pax, Roman ideas of virtue and dominance, and shalom, the meaning of peace in the Hebrew Bible.


The religious meanings of peace, as in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, are where peace also has internal and external meanings but where these meanings are tied to positive virtues, such as love, and to the personal and social works of justice. Peace as justice is mentioned in a religious context.

Statue of the Greek goddess Eirene at Glyptothek

The New Testament Greek meanings for peace, contained in the word eirene, evolved over the course of Greco-Roman civilization from such agricultural meanings as prosperity, fertility, and security of home contained in Hesiod’s Works and Days, to more internal meanings of peace formulated by the Stoics, such as Epictetus. In his Meditations, or To Himself, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius expresses peace as a state of unperturbed tranquility.

The English word "peace" derives ultimately from its root, the Latin "pax". For the earliest Romans, pax meant to live in a state of agreement, where discord and war were absent. Shalom (Hebrew: שלום‎) is the word for peace in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh or Hebrew: תנ"ך‎), and has other meanings also pertaining to well being, including use as a greeting.

New Testament[edit]

Christ in Gethsemane commands Peter to lay down his sword (fresco by Giotto)

To Christians, the New Testament is first and foremost the “gospel of peace.” In the New Testament God is described as the God of peace and love itself. Christ is the peaceful king, the way to peace, and peace itself. Jesus’ message is the summation of peace found in the Hebrew shalom. Yet here all the meanings of peace inherited from the Jewish tradition and translated into the Greek of the New Testament are deepened and expanded.

According to the New Testament, Christ brings reconciliation of humanity to God and of humans to one another, healing, nourishment, and renewal to the world, liberation to the poor and oppressed. He is described as fulfilling the promise of the messianic kingdom of the Christian religion and the peace that the prophets preached, and bringing wholeness and fulfillment, the deepest meanings of peace. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:1-16) and his Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6:20-45) combine with his call to "love your enemies" (Mt. 5:38-48) to encapsulate his teachings on peacemaking.

Eirene is the word that the New Testament generally uses for peace, one of the twenty words used by the Septuagint, which is the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible used in the largely Greek-speaking Jewish communities throughout the Greco-Roman world. It is chiefly through the Septuagint’s use of Greek that the Greek word eirene became infused with all the religious imagery and richness of the word shalom in the Hebrew Bible that had evolved over the history of the Jewish people. Eirene therefore contains not only the earliest meanings of shalom, such as the opposite of war, security, order, harmony, and a greeting or farewell, but it also takes on all the meanings of healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and wholeness that Jesus taught was the new meaning of the kingdom. Subsequently, the use of the Greek Bible as the basis for St. Jerome’s Vulgate translation into Latin then brought all the new meanings of eirene to the Latin word pax and transformed it from a term for an imposed order of the sword, the Pax Romana, into the chief image of peace for Western Christianity.


The various meanings of eirene in the New Testament can be divided into four groups:

  • first, in texts used to describe the flourishing condition of the church and its salvation;
  • second, peace among all the members of a community brought about through the conversion of individuals and linked through the Holy Spirit;
  • third, the kingdom of God itself and the inner disposition of those who keep the Covenant in love and grace;
  • and fourth, reconciliation with God that is both the gift of God and the fruit of that gift, what theologians call justification. By reconciling humanity with God Christ brings unity, the healing of division, the end of the Old Covenant and the creation of a new humanity, in short, “peace.”

Apocalyptic peace[edit]

Since the time of the Jewish prophets, the kingdom of God and the peace that would reign in it was seen as an ultimate goal of history, the ultimate human bond. Yet both the Prophets and the New Testament clearly taught that the kingdom’s birth would not be easy, that its coming would be accompanied by great struggle and the suffering of those who seek justice. Nevertheless, this very struggle was to be one of nonviolence: nowhere in the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, do followers of Jesus inflict suffering. Instead, their very suffering helps usher in the new kingdom; and it is the heavenly, spiritual, army that actually defeats God’s enemies.

The author of the Apocalypse has also left the peacemaker a vivid image of peace: Jerusalem as the vision of peace and of peace itself as the renewal of creation. This is appropriate, for the goal of the peacemaker is the new city created in heaven, one that consigns the Romes of human power to oblivion and that transforms the earthly Jerusalem, the paradigm of human institutions, into the new kingdom. Its final descent is also a revelation, for it comes to people not through their own efforts, or even in spite of their own frustrations, but as a completely free gift of God to those who seek the kingdom, who are open to grace, and who attempt to live it in this life.

Early Church (c. 100–c. 300)[edit]

From the time of St. Paul, Christians seem to have recognized that if they were to create a new kingdom in the world and to “overcome evil with good” in the context of Roman political power they would have to wage a struggle both to retain their own steadfastness and to replace the empire that already existed. While the early church's understanding of peace was not based on a specifically political opposition to an unjust state, in the ancient world no clear-cut division existed between what was political and what was religious or social.

From the start, the church established itself as a foe of pagan society. Christians identified themselves as a new and separate political people, a new world empire or oikumene, as Basil the Great called it (Homilies on the Psalms 48.1, 59.3; Letter 66.2). In imitation of Christ, the Christian movement sought to liberate the victim of oppression and marginalization. Yet their struggle was not to destroy the old world but to convert it.

This process of conversion worked on two levels. The first was that of intellectual persuasion carried on by the educated, Hellenized Christians who moved within the moral and intellectual tradition of the ancient world and could rebut it on its own terms. These were the Apologists, the Greek word for “vindicator” or one who explains. Among them were Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, and Arnobius. On another, ethical and broad-based level, Christians sought to live the injunction to love their enemies while resisting their evil, even if this involved persecution and death: these were the martyrs, the Greek word for “witness.” While the Apologists have left behind a large collection of written texts, some of which we shall examine below, the testimony of the martyrs derives from eyewitness accounts or later written tradi-tions. Together they demonstrate that peacemaking is a process that involves all types of people, all forms of witness, and that draws on all the talents and sacrifices that are unique to individuals, as they are.

Another theme worth examining here is the distinction between peacemaking and nonviolence. While the two are generally associated — since by its very nature peacemaking must be nonviolent — nonviolence itself is only one aspect of peacemaking. In a Catholic sense peace is the pursuit and creation of justice and this tradition makes the connection between Christian nonviolence and the love and pursuit of justice that characterize the peacemaker. The Apologists also specifically responded to and emphasized Christian abhorrence to violence or a refusal to participate in military life. This narrow focus, in the context of debate over specific issues, should not mislead the modern reader into believing that the overall outlook of these writers was equally narrow or purely negative.


St. Lawrence. Mosaic from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy.

The word “martyr” is the Greek for “witness.” The literal meaning of the word is nothing else: the martyrs were simply following the rule that to live as a child of God, to share in God’s reign, one had to live a life of open love as the outward manifestation of the inner conversion that God’s grace was believed to bring about. The martyrs took the commands “love your enemies” and “overcome evil with good” at face value. They forged the character of early Christianity in the tradition of the Jewish figures Daniel and the Maccabees, heroes who were willing to give up their lives for the sake of God’s kingdom.

The sufferings of the martyrs were therefore not an act of suicide or some masochistic form of passive weakness that found its fulfillment in torture and death at the hands of the Romans. Their nonviolence was a political and public act of commitment carried out in the public arena, designed to show the enemy the nature of God’s reign: what is worth living for is also worth dying for. In so doing they sought to win the enemy over to the truth. This passionate commitment to the truth was quite the opposite of the Cynic's removal from public life or the Stoic’s notion that error can be overcome by a withdrawal into a state of unperturbed tranquility. Like the Stoics, however, the martyrs did share an essential religious insight, an appreciation of a central paradox in life: that one cannot fully love life without its opposite — a willingness to let go of it — which also implies an ability to let go of a precious possession, the fear of death.

The early Christians actively opposed the Roman world system; and their opposition brought suffering and death to them, not that they sought either as an end. Ultimately, however, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Jean Donovan and the women martyrs of El Salvador, they were willing to undergo it if there were no other choice in remaining true to their beliefs. What distinguished this willingness, however, was that the martyrs did not simply meet their deaths passively but chose their own time and place to make a fight of it, to publicly confront the system before the very people they hoped to convert. Their struggle turned the Colosseum and countless other public arenas where the Romans had celebrated the bloody survival of the fittest into something quite distasteful to the ancient world: the place where gentleness won the final round over the sword.

Christians in the Roman Army[edit]

The question of Christian service in the Roman army in whatever numbers has been hotly debated over time. Evidence of Christians serving as Roman soldiers is undeniable; yet the dates, extent, and significance of such service is still open to interpretation. Catholic historians have tended to emphasize continuing Christian loyalty to the state, reading back into history the alliance between Catholicism and government that characterized European politics up to the period of Vatican II. Such historians assert that Christians were not opposed to fighting per se but only to the idolatry and sexual immorality that camp life involved.

Many factors enter into this consideration, however. One is that under the Roman Empire from the second to the fourth century military service (militare) was generally peaceful police work: traffic and customs control, fireman duty, the apprehension of common criminals and bandits, quelling street brawls, and performing the roles of engineering, clearance, and other works of building for which the Roman army was well known. Torture of prisoners and other corporal punishments were also common police methods, however. Only occasionally during this period, when the borders were threatened, were Roman soldiers actually called on to fight in war (bellare). The first term, militare, in fact, was used to describe most civilian government service; and many of the Christians whom we find in the military during this period were engaged in such non-violent work. Such early-Christian writers as Hippolytus and Tertullian wrote on the topic. Among the beter-known soldier saints are St. Marinus, St. Marcellus, and St. Maximilian, and St. Martin of Tours.

Another factor worth considering is that much of the evidence for Christian soldiering is derived from pagan sources, such as the background story of the Thundering Legion, or from the reincarnation of pagan myths into Christian legend about fighting heroes: Saint George and Saint Mercurius are good examples. Third, the evidence for Christians who were actually in the military generally comes from accounts of their martyrdoms for refusing to fight or from their confession to being Christians while in the army.

Age of Constantine (c. 300–c. 500)[edit]

Head of Constantine. (Rome, Capitoline Museum. Photo: Jean-Christophe BENOIST)

With the triumph of Constantine as sole Roman emperor in 313 and the beginning of a Christianized Roman Empire, the Catholic Church faced a new problem. Born out of opposition to the prevailing value structure of the ancient world and nurtured in persecution on the margins of society, the former revolutionaries had now come to the center of power; the church of the martyrs now found itself an accepted and favored religion, soon to become the official religion of the state.

This alliance of the Roman Empire and the Church now produced changes in both. Constantine’s conversion and his administrative reorganizations of the empire brought into the structures of Christian power a large number of superficial converts. Conversion now often proceeded from above, leaving Roman administrative machinery and institutions largely untouched by Christian ideals. On the other hand, Christian victory over imperial power resulted in a new intellectual apologetic, especially in the East, aimed not at defending a poor sect against society at large but at explaining its sudden power and new status. As the empire put on the robes of Christianity and the protection of the Christian God as a means of preserving its rule, so too the church began to put on the trappings of empire. The vestments of its clergy, its liturgical rituals, its hierarchical structure, even its church buildings, were borrowed wholesale from those of the Roman imperial administration.

Even the vocabulary of peace used by the church was affected by these changes and took on distinctly Roman accents. In the alliance of emperor and church the external order of the Pax Romana fused with Christian notions of peace to create a new pax ecclesiae. This represented both the final settlement between church and empire, ending the persecutions, and a new order of Christian hierarchy and authority that insured external harmony and internal salvation for society at large. On the highest levels in both practice and writing Christian pax became more and more bound to the ideas of ordo (order) and concordia (harmony) that had characterized Stoic and Roman thought. Despite these changes, however, the message of peace, though translated for a new age, one also influenced by barbarian notions and practices, continued strongly. Its manifestations were several: in the elite thought of church leaders like Eusebius of Caesarea, Lactantius, Ambrose of Milan, and Augustine of Hippo; and in the popular revolt from Roman society that found a haven in the monastic movement that was born just as the empire had allied itself with the church.

Augustine of Hippo[edit]

The City of God, Augustine’s masterpiece, was written between 413 and 426 in response to arguments made by Volusianus, proconsul of Africa, that Christian nonviolence was responsible for the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 410. Augustine’s response is both a defense of a certain type of peace, the ordo tranquillitatis (tranquillity of order) imposed by Rome, and a stark contrast between the peace of coercion and exploitation of an earthly state and the peace of justice that lives in the City of God, that is, the imitation of Christ lived by true Christians. This and other of his works have often been interpreted as the fountainheads of the Western theory of the just war, but their place in the history of peacemaking has been largely ignored. Many questions remain: what was Augustine’s attitude toward the Roman Empire expressed here? Did he favor its wars, even those claimed as “just wars?” Did Augustine associate “peace” with “order?” What did he mean by these terms? This has been hotly debated over the centuries, but in general we can say that his "tranquillity of order" is closer to Christian notions of peace and justice rather than an imposed law and order like the Pax Romana.

Monastic revolt[edit]

Hieronymous Bosch, Temptation of St. Anthony. Madrid, Prado Museum

While there is little literary evidence for popular attitudes among Christians in late imperial times, what does exist is associated with the new monastic movement. It is no coincidence that the appearance of the first monks comes within a few years of Constantine’s assumption of power and the alliance of church and empire that he forged. As Christians were brought into the new imperial aristocracy and the old pagan aristocracy converted to the victorious religion, the ways of empire began to dominate much of the thinking and behavior of the higher levels of Christian society: authoritarianism within the church, violent coercion, and the theory of divinely sanctioned wars were only some of the results.

Yet, at the same time, Christian laypeople began to desert this new alliance by the thousands, abandoning the oppression and corruption of urban society and of settled agricultural communities to flee to the purity, and freedom, of the desert, whether the arid one of Egypt or the forested ones of western Europe.

The revolt started among the lower classes of the provinces, at first in Egypt, then spread to Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, and finally to Italy and southern Gaul. Anthony the Hermit (c.251-356), the founder of monasticism, and Pachomius (c.290-346) were the prototypes. Anthony fled to the desert to create a new society in imitation of the Gospel model; he rejected violence in pursuit of justice and Roman repression in favor of an often outspoken support of the oppressed. Struggle, not flight, was the core of his monastic movement. Anthony’s reputation for holiness soon reached Constantine himself, to whose requests for advice the hermit wrote on the need for just government and society.

Barbarian Invasions (c. 400–c.800)[edit]

St Martin leaves the life of chivalry and renounces the army (fresco by Simone Martini)

The physical impact of the Barbarian Invasions are no longer seen as significant: the entire population of all the invading tribes actually numbered no more than five percent of the population of the conquered provinces; and the barbarians themselves only took over the administrative machinery of the declining empire, in most cases simply replacing one elite with another and doing very little to change the material or spiritual conditions of the peoples they governed. There is a long historical tradition that has collected ample evidence to show that the Roman Empire itself was undergoing profound social, economic, and spiritual changes that were only hastened by the invasions. The Christian response to the invasions was clear. Rather than being weakened by a wholesale barbarization, the church’s message became even stronger, making an activist missionary approach all the more compelling. While the upper levels of Christian Roman society sought various accommodations to the new barbarians, on a lower level local bishops and monastic leaders were actively forging a new society, bridging the chasm between Gospel ideals of peace and justice, the barbarian ideals of the new ruling classes, and the still largely pagan lives of the masses of country folk. These changes, however slow and uneven, are illustrated in the lives and works of missionaries who confronted the barbarian invaders and attempted to convert them to Christianity; and in a prophetic tradition of speaking out for peace and justice.

Missionaries and Saints[edit]

The Christian peacemakers of this period were not the dominant cultural or political force of their time, but were either marginalized minorities — as in the case of the Roman Empire or — as in the case of the missionaries who evangelized the barbarians — were actually reaching out not from an oppressive and collapsing world to an anarchic one that offered the seeds of a new society. Among the more important figures of active peacemaking or of intellectual life worth further study were Martin of Tours, Salvian of Marseilles, Nicetas of Remesiana, Germanus of Auxerre, Severinus of Noricum, St. Patrick, St. Genevieve of Paris, Columban, and St. Boniface of Crediton.


From the sixth century on Irish abbot-bishops began developing a system of written laws for the regulation of the external and internal lives of their congregations. These “penitentials” borrowed inspiration and specific regulations from the early church councils, monastic rules, and the letters of popes and bishops. Many of the regulations at first paralleled those aimed at insuring the special status of the clergy, including its nonviolence, but were gradually extended to the lay population. The penitentials were a series of manuals designed for priests who heard confessions that specified certain penances for certain categories of sins. Penances ranged from fasting on bread and water for weeks, seasons or years — a harsh punishment in a world where most people lived on the margins of starvation in the best of times — paying compensation to victims in money, goods or property, exile, pilgrimage, and excommunication. Readmission to Christian community was possible only after the completion of the prescribed penance.

These manuals proved to be such a concise and effective method for conceptualizing and standardizing notions of sin and repentance that they spread from Ireland to the Continent in a wide variety of collections that became enshrined in official collections of church law by the twelfth century.

The penitentials are of great value for studying early medieval notions of violence, its seriousness and its consequences in a variety of actions, circumstances, and classes of victims. They reveal a growing awareness of Gospel ideals in a barbarized society. One would expect rules governing the punishments for violent crimes like murder, infanticide, patricide, and rape; yet the texts below also reveal clear-cut disapproval for killing in wartime, even under the lawful command of legitimate authority. On the subject of warfare the punishments recommended in almost every penitential — with the exception of the Roman Penitential of Halitgar — which metes out a twenty-one week penance, are uniform: forty days of penance for participating in “open battle,” that is, in feudal war. Although it also imposed this penance, the Penitential of Pseudo-Theodore recognized the soldier’s duty to obey just orders and imposed a ten-year penance on the prince who issued the order. While light compared with punishments for murder, or even for many types of sexual crimes and sins, the appearance of this standard forty-day punishment is a clear indication that the medieval conscience still carried with it the Gospel call for nonviolence, however mitigated by circumstances.

Carolingian peacemaking (800–1100)[edit]

Charles the Bald with Popes Gelasius I and Gregory I. From the Sacramentary of Charles the Bald (ca. 870)

The Carolingian period saw the emergence of two elements that were to dramatically alter Catholic concepts of peace and peacemaking for centuries to come. The first was the political emergence of the new Carolingian dynasty in the renewed Roman Empire of the West. The second was the beginning of fresh barbarian invasions from the north and east and the rise of Islam. Internal efforts to legislate the life of the Christian Republic were therefore matched by its external defense against invasions by the Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens. The Carolingian Empire thus brought a renewed militarization of society that sought to protect Christendom from external threat, while it used the hierarchical bonds of feudal oaths and vassalage to bring the new class of mobile horse warriors, the milities, to some semblance of central authority.

At the same time European intellectual and political elites formulated new theories of the relationship between political and spiritual leadership in a unified Christian society. Their problems and conditions were in many ways similar to those of Christian thinkers under the late Roman Empire when the state was identified with Christian society and its leadership was accepted as a legitimate interpreter of the Gospels. These conditions and ideas were to shape the forms of peacemaking in this period into a new image that emphasized hierarchy, order, and compulsion as legitimate means to Christian perfection. Yet these formulations evoked equally strong responses and new interpretations of the gospel of peace that would reaffirm the life of Jesus and seek to apply it to this new world.

The Carolingian Empire was first hierarchical: all authority flowed down from heaven’s own hierarchies through the emperor, the representative of Christ acting as intermediary between the earth and the heavens. All grace, authority, and order was then diffused through him to all levels of Christian society. Peace was therefore something imposed from above, a state of order, tranquility, and unity within the empire guaranteed by force. Like the Germanic king's peace, Carolingian peace was a special protection granted to subjects as a privilege, a possession of the powerful dispersed like wealth or favors.

Second, the close identification of the Carolingian Empire with the extent of Western Christianity revived the late Roman associations of Christianitas (Christendom) with the orbis Romanus or oikoumene (the Roman world). Only membership within this empire guaranteed salvation; all those beyond the frontiers of Christendom, or those within who did not recognize the supremacy of the Christian emperor, were enemies of the Christian faith, the pax of the emperor, and, therefore, of the church. Thus on the most official levels Christian peace necessitated its defense against the attacks of external enemies and their conquest and forced conversion.

Popes and Frankish clergy cooperated to refine a theory of such divine kingship and holy war based on Old Testament models. The brutal subjugation of the east Saxons (772-804), their forced conversion, and Charlemagne’s policy of genocide against those who refused to convert or who returned to paganism is an example of the outcome. In official Carolingian thought the peacemaker therefore became the person charged with imposing peace from above. “May there be peace in the realm,” swore the emperor on his coronation day. Charlemagne (king 768-814) himself took the title Imperator Pacificus, who brought glory and prosperity, peace, and life to the realm. The imperial lawman was called the paciarius, the peace man; and the pax of a village or a place became the area of jurisdiction of the paciarius.

Third, Carolingian theory established two, separate, ecclesiastical and secular spheres of authority within Christian society, one to lead the body and one the spirit. From the eighth century on Christian peace would therefore entail two things: one the external protection of social order by force and imperial legislation, the other a distinct internal peace of the heart, based on Gospel ethics but restricted to monks and clerics. The Carolingians insured that each sphere kept to its own business. Monastic life was supported, encouraged, and carefully directed; while late Roman prohibitions against clerical participation in the army were repeated again and again. However, this tradition of religious peacemaking preserved the message of the Gospels with a clear understanding of the meaning of nonviolence that was to reveal itself throughout the Carolingian age in a variety of active forms. Among the thinkers and writers on issues of peace and peacemaking were Alcuin of York, Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel, Druthmar of Corbie, Paschasius Radbertus, Hincmar of Rheims, and Rather of Liège. In keeping with their time, these offered various interpretations of peace as an inner tranquillity, legal guidelines to war and the curbing of military violence, or the image of peace as an ideal Christian state.


Pope Nicholas I (858-67) exemplifies peacemaking at the highest levels of Christian society. Famous for his aid to the poor and the pursuit of social justice, Nicholas also vigorously pursued missionary expansion on the borders of Christendom. Yet against the backdrop of Carolingian conquest Nicholas penned what is both a “classic summary of Christian faith and discipline” in dealing with the outside world and a harsh condemnation of war. In his Reply to the Inquiry of the Bulgars, written in 866, Nicholas attempts to answer a series of questions from the newly converted Khan Boris on the proper Christian conduct of a kingdom. In his reply the pope condemns conversion by force, branding war as a diabolical fraud.

While Nicholas concedes that war may be permissible in cases of inescapable necessity, in self-defense, he warns that “in itself it is the devil’s work.” He advises that deserters (c. 22) and those who refuse to obey orders to kill (c. 23) be treated leniently and gives Boris examples of numerous martyrs who fled in the face of violence. The pope further notes that the clergy, “the soldiers of the church,” are to take no part in the affairs of the world that “involves them inevitably in the spilling of blood.” His condemnation was not merely a further re-striction on clerical violence but a reversal of the official Carolingian acceptance of war as a duty in the spread of Christendom.

In response to Boris’ question as to how Christians are to prepare for war, Nicholas answers ironically that one must employ all the Christian works of mercy that make peace, affirm life, and negate the motives for and works of war. In chapter 34 Nicholas offers some para-doxical advice: the Hebrews saved themselves by not observing the Sabbath and by defending themselves by arms. The passage is ambiguous. Is Nicholas offering advice on military preparedness or on the spirit of the Christian who must also go beyond the letter of the law? This ambiguity is carried into chapter 35, as Nicholas tells Boris to reject ritual preparations for battle: songs, sexual jokes, incantations should be abandoned in favor of actions that bring justice. Nicholas then turns the argument and makes these points explicit in his following chapters.

Martyrs of Cordoba[edit]

The Mosque in Cordoba. Photo:Timor Espallargas

Perhaps the most important, though least known, nonviolent campaign during the early Carolingian period is the ninth-century martyr movement of Cordoba, Spain. At the outset of the movement most of the Iberian peninsula had been Muslim for about a century. In the mid-ninth century, however, a group of Christian intellectuals in Cordoba, both cleric and lay, initiated a movement of cultural and religious revival.

By 850 the Christian revival within the city spurred a Muslim pogrom that initially met little Christian resistance. In April 850, however, a group of Muslim citizens arrested a Christian cleric named Perfectus, accused him of openly attacking Mohammed, and executed him. The Muslim persecution unleashed an “unprecedented nonviolent fury.” Christians began to openly proclaim their Christianity and to denounce Islam. Despite continued arrests, the nonviolent protests continued to the end of 851 and throughout 852 as married couples, monks, Moslem converts, and repentant apostates — men and women — openly defied the Islamic authorities.

In late 852 Emir Abd al-Rahman died. His successor, Emir Mohammed I (852-56), faced by an uncontrollable nonviolent revolt in Cordoba and by a very violent rebellion in Toledo, persuaded church leaders to call a council at Cordoba to seek an end to the confrontation. In December 852 a council honored those fallen but called on Christians to refrain from seeking martyrdom. The Christian community, however, heeded other leadership. During the lull in activity two leaders of the Christian community rallied their followers. Eulogius of Cordova had composed his Memoriale sanctorum (Memorial of the Saints) and Alvarus the first part of the Indiculus luminosus (The Remarkable List), both explanations of the martyrs’ activities not as acts of suicide but as positive assertions of Christianity and witnesses to the truth.

In June 853 five more Christians came forward to proclaim their faith. After backing down from a threat to massacre all Christian men and to sell Christian women to prostitution, Mohammed began a purge of Christians from the government, imposed severe taxes, destroyed church buildings, and pressed for forced conversions to Islam. For nearly two years no new martyrs appeared. In 854, however, Alvarus published the second part of his Indiculus, equating Mohammed with the Antichrist of the Apocalypse. By 855 Christians were again appearing before the magistrates, pressing them to convert to Christianity, and meeting their deaths. The martyrdoms continued throughout the 850s. Finally in 859 Eulogius himself was executed. With him ended the history of the martyrdoms. In 884 Eulogius’ and his protegées’ remains were brought to Oviedo in Christian northern Spain along with a manuscript of his writings, from which his words and the events in Spain reached a wide audience.

Recent historical interpretation of the martyr movement reflect questions on its nature. Thus Kenneth Baxter Wolf [1] sees its cause in a “spiritual anxiety” spurred on by one Christian’s losing his comfortable government job. While Clayton J. Drees[2] sees their motives in a “pathological death-wish, the product of unexpressed hatred toward society that had turned inward against themselves” and other innate “psychological imbalances.”

In any case, the testimony is clear and unambiguous and is agreed to even by those who criticize the martyrs: Flora and Maria’s deaths so embarrassed the Muslim authorities that they soon released Eulogius and his companions from prison.

Peace and Truce of God[edit]

The most important outcome of Carolingian forms of peacemaking are the movements of the Peace of God and the Truce of God. The first was the protection from military violence won by special groups in medieval society. These included the clergy and their possessions; the poor; women; peasants along with their tools, animals, mills, vineyards, and labor; and later pilgrims and merchants: in short, the vast majority of the medieval population who neither bore arms, nor were entitled to bear them. The Truce of God, while often confused and later merged with the Peace, protected certain times of the week and year from the violence of the feudal class: no private or public wars were to be waged from Wednesday evening until Monday morning, during certain saints’ days, during Advent, Lent, and Rogation days. At certain times and places, like the Peace, it also extended its protection to persons and property.

Peace of God[edit]

The Peace of God originated in the episcopal and popular assemblies of the Frankish and Carolingian periods. It also had its roots in the ideas of peace as justice preserved and nurtured for centuries in Carolingian monasteries. As Carolingian authority began to decay, especially on the outskirts of power, as in southern Gaul, the episcopate took steps to protect their congregations and their holdings against the encroachments of local nobles. The clergy moved into the power vacuum in order to protect their own position, but they also sought to restore peace and justice. This restauracio pacis broke with Carolingian ideas by crossing the line between sacred and secular forms of peace. The bishops also chose spiritual and nonviolent methods to bring about peace, and in this they were actively supported from the start by the laity, the rustici and pauperes (peasants and poor people), who were the traditional victims of feudal exploitation and violence.

The Peace movement was born at Charroux in eastern Aquitaine c.989 and spread rapidly under both ecclesiastical and secular leadership. By 1041 the Peace had spread throughout France and had reached Flanders and Italy. From c.1018 the Peace was extended to Catalonia and reached Barcelona, Girona, and Urgel. Assemblies were repeated all over western Europe into the 1060s.[3]

Right from the start the new peace movement attracted both men and women, including peasants of the lowest social orders. Under the leadership of the bishops they came together in a series of church councils that legislated for each diocese and were also the scenes of mass demonstrations dedicated to peace and justice. Moved by eloquent sermons on the need for reconciliation, thousands joined together amid chants of “Peace! Peace! Peace!” and swore on the relics of the saints to work for reconciliation and for peace, equality, and the love of their brothers and sisters.

The Peace assemblies became occasions of high emotion and solidarity between classes, where masses were moved to penitence and conversion, to abandoning arms and to seeking peace and justice. Such ideas of absolution, forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, communion, and the admission of the penitent to communion are, in fact, inherent in the medieval idea of pax, while the influence of the penitential system within the Peace movement always remained strong. The councils legislated on the methods to be used within the diocese to protect the peasants’ labor, property, and legal rights from exploitation. Their participants broke the bonds of medieval hierarchical order by swearing pacts of peace to one another as free equals. The methods used, at least in its first or “sanctified” phase, were almost wholly nonviolent – the spiritual sanctions of excommunication and interdict against knights who refused to obey the call to peace.

These spiritual weapons were quite effective in limiting feudal violence. Wielded by the ecclesiastical hierarchy but made effective only by the nonviolent participation of the Christian people, they forbade the violent from participating in the Christian community: no Eucharist, no forgiveness of sins, no engagements or marriages, no attendance at mass, no Christian burial. Even in the far more institutional and official Truce of God, the tools used by the civil government remained largely nonviolent: financial reparations or banishment on top of excommunication.

Truce of God[edit]

The Peace movement reached its peak at Narbonne in 1054 with a total injunction against violence by Christians against other Christians. “He who kills a Christian spills the blood of Christ,” it announced. With the second half of the eleventh century, however, the Peace was merged with the Truce of God and coopted, “institutionalized” by the lay lords in the interests of political centralization and unification. Peace militias were raised to enforce the decrees of the councils, hostages were taken to insure obedience to the oaths, and the castles and lands of resisting lords were destroyed. Local lords began to levy “peace taxes” to maintain these militias and to dub themselves “peacemakers.”

The institutionalized Peace and the Truce were used to great advantage in many areas. The movements, however, retained many of their original elements: swearing of oaths, truce days, restitution by offenders. Yet these were centered not on popular assemblies but on the prince and enforced through his agents, the paciarii, and in his peace courts. The pattern was the same throughout France, in the Empire, in the English possessions in France, and in Christian Spain.

Era of the Crusades (c.1100–1400)[edit]

The Peace movement of the eleventh century spurred an aristocratic and conservative reaction that worked on three levels. On the first level, of theory, conservative intellectuals formulated a new concept of hierarchy – the three orders of society – that would once more return the world to the rigid order of Carolingian society and mute the voices of the popular Peace movement. On the second level, that of political power, the newly emerging states and principalities of the period used the mass appeal and the structural innovations of the Peace of God as a tool for their own consolidation of power. Their efforts are reflected both in the institutionalized Peace and in the Truce of God. On the third level religious thinkers and secular writers attempted to incorporate the controls of the Peace and Truce of God into the existing warrior ethic by “Christianizing” it into the Crusades and the cult of chivalry.

St. Francis before the Sultan - the trial by fire (fresco attributed to Giotto)

New Poverty movements[edit]

Based on the model of the early church, the Gregorian Reform had attacked the basis of contemporary society in its call for the purification of Christian individuals and institutions. The reform produced a profound and far-reaching challenge to Christians to assume a new personal responsibility for their spiritual well-being and a new critical attitude to Christian leadership.

This attitude united with the emergence of new forms of power in the West — the rise of an urban and capitalist money economy and of the crusader ideal — to produce original forms of prophetic protest and of positive peacemaking. That the new form of peacemaking linked its criticism of the urban money economy with the violence of the feudal classes was natural, first because capitalism was seen as a strange new form of exploitation, and secondly because the power of the feudal classes had always been linked to violence and was based on the economic exploitation of the poor.

With the Peace of God, the poor assumed a position of Christian leadership that was eventually repressed by the aristocratic reaction. The discontent remaining in the wake of the Gregorian Reform, however, became a prime spur to the new call for the imitation of the primitive church among individuals and small groups. Poverty began to be seen as the equivalent of the sufferings of the early martyrs, a suffering willingly accepted in witness to the truth of the Gospels that the humble and the poor of spirit will inherit the earth. The meaning of poverty thus shifted radically from passivity to that of active imitation of the evangelical life of Christ, the Apostles, and the primitive church. It ennobled those who practiced it and changed the thinking of theologians and legislators. It also gave new meaning to the sufferings of the actual poor and of those who cared for them. The new ideal began to equate the pauperes and the laboratores with the highest ideal of the Christian life.

Voluntary poverty thus became a means to an inner, spiritual poverty, the sign of a conversion of the “inner person,” and thus of the worthiness of the new preachers of this poverty. At the same time, nonviolence, the official status of the poor, therefore gained a new dignity as a positive imitation of the Gospel life. Thus from the mid-eleventh century with spread of the Peace of God there appeared all over the West a succession of preachers, prophets, and groups dedicated to the twin ideals of poverty and peace that indicted contemporary violence and offered a new model of living. Movements included those of the Waldensians, the Humiliati, St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order and their Third Order.

Popular peace movements[edit]

A Procession of Flagellants

The effect of the mendicant friars and their third orders is well illustrated by the peace movement of the mid-thirteenth century known as the Great Alleluia. Several factors contributed to its appearance: disgust with the continued war between Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX united with apocalyptic expectations that saw Frederick as the Antichrist and awaited the new age to dawn. Apparently spontaneously, therefore, thousands of people throughout northern Italy began to search for alternatives to the violence. Urged on by wandering preachers, including the Dominican John of Vicenza, both laypeople and mendicants began to make peace.

This peace movement recalled the days of St. Francis’ wanderings through the Italian countryside. Through sermons, processions, devotions, and other demonstrations the peace spread rapidly through northeastern Italy, into the Romagna around Bologna, and into Tuscany. It culminated at Verona on August 28, 1233 when, on the Plain of Pasquara, 400,000 people of all classes and areas of northern Italy reportedly assembled to demonstrate for the end of war, for peace, and reconciliation. Like that of the Peace of God, the assembly moved many to abandon violence and embrace their enemies. For a while even the emperor and the pope agreed to make peace. Other popular peace movements included the Flagellants, the peace pilgrimage of Venturino da Bergamo,[4] and the Bianchi.

Alternatives to the Crusades[edit]

Just as the apostolic poverty movements confronted the violence of the feudal order within Europe, so too Christian missionary work attempted to counter the violence of the Crusades overseas by imitating the life of Christ and the Apostles in preaching the Gospels to all nations. Nonviolent conversion was consciously presented as a viable alternative to the violence of the crusaders. At the same time that popular movements for peace and justice attracted thousands to demonstrate their commitment to a true Christian society, Europe also produced a great variety of writers who offered alternative visions to the Crusades, either in the image of the just society reached through the Apocalypse or in direct condemnations of crusading warfare and the military. Examples include St. Peter the Venerable, Roger Bacon, and Blessed Raymond Lull.

Direct condemnations of the military came from several sources during the Crusade period. One of the most important is the literary tradition that rose not from the feudal class but from the lower clergy: the emerging intellectual class of the age. These Included several forms, the vision literature of the period, often represented as true accounts of visions of heaven and hell but usually heavily influenced by literary convention and artistic invention; the poetry of protest found especially in the works of the troubadours of Southern France, whose region felt the full brunt of destruction in the Albigensian Crusade; and a form of ethical writing usually in poetic form, that has come to be known as the “political poetry” of the Middle Ages. These authors included Guilhem d'Autpol (Guillem Daspols), Guilhem de Tudela, and Étienne de Fougères.

Papal diplomacy and arbitration[edit]

The institutional church, and especially the papacy, long sought to use its authority to promote peace and justice, and like all human institutions, has met with mixed results. From Antiquity to the end of the Crusade era, there were several areas in which the papacy consistently set standards and definitions of Catholic peacemaking. The first was primarily in the area of international diplomacy; the second was the realm of canon law and of theology, in attempts to define the limits of war and violence; and the third, among the Scholastics who investigated the boundaries of individual conscience.

Since the dawn of the Middle Ages the peaceful resolution of conflicts has been taken as one of the prime duties and prerogatives of the papacy. The papacy, in fact, can be regarded as the originator of many of the most basic elements of modern diplomacy and international law: the protection and safe conduct of ambassadors, the secrecy of diplomatic negotiations, the insistence that treaties and their terms, once made, are to be strictly adhered to, the condemnation of violations, provisions for the release of prisoners and hostages and their humane treatment while in detention, the protection of exiles, aliens, and racial minorities, and the condemnation of unjust wars all derive from the papal position both as the leader of Christian society and as a force for international unity among secular states. The papacy’s association of peace with justice that motivated its active arbitration in international relations also prompted its interest in another area associated with justice, that of jus or law. In the international sphere this brought the papacy to adopt the ancient Roman theories of the jus gentium, a body of custom and agreements among peoples and sovereign princes, from the tenth century linked with the revival of Roman law in Italy. Closely associated with Roman law and custom was the notion of the just war, which was Christianized by St. Augustine and handed on to the Middle Ages through St. Isidore of Seville.

Rights of conscience[edit]

Raymond of Peñafort

Later canon lawyers retained Gratian’s and other canon-law distinctions and outlook and continued to stress the duty of obedience in just wars. Their definitions, such as that of Ramon of Peñafort, were nothing more than elaborations of his position, specifying the just causes and the intentions of those who waged the just war. Within this fairly straightforward definition, however, there emerged much room for comment and debate: what constituted proper authority? What was just cause? And what was proper intent? In addition to the motives of the prince com-manding the war, however, canon lawyers and theologians also debated another issue with far more serious consequences for the individual Christian bound to fight in that war. What, they asked, were the consequences for the individual if the prince waging the war lacked proper authority, if he were a heretic or a schismatic? What if the war were being waged by legitimate authority but without just cause: against other Christians and for mere territorial gain? And what if the intent of those waging or com-manding the war were unjust, be it greed for booty or vengeance? What, then, were the duties of the individual Christian and how was he to determine this duty?

While theologians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw much to commend the waging of just wars, they tended to follow the lead of Peter Lombard and of the older penitential tradition and to see military service itself as sinful. They therefore placed less emphasis than Gratian and the canonists on authority and obedience and more on the Christian pursuit of perfection guided by the Sermon on the Mount. The injunction to obey God above human law guided their thoughts on war and set the general criteria for obedience to commands or to participation in war to begin with.

Canon lawyers, theologians and ecclesiastical theorists like William of Ockham derived from this material — and from the tradition of St. Paul, St. Jerome, Peter Abelard, and St. Thomas Aquinas — a new theory of the rights of individual conscience. Good examples include the work of Raymond of Peñafort, Robert of Courson, and Roland of Cremona.

Renaissance and Reformation (c.1400 – c.1800)[edit]

Many strains of the Christian peace tradition survived into the Renaissance, while some flourished in new and unexpected ways. The revival of classical thought that took hold of the Italian humanists also provided them with venerable models of peace based upon Stoic and imperial Roman modes of thought. At the same time, the long evolving traditions of medieval prophesy and protest combined with the new learning and the printing press, especially in the north of Europe, to produce a form of peacemaking that suddenly emerged to challenge the new nation-state and its war policies.

Italian Humanists[edit]

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch). Portrait by Altichiero

These trends are reflected in the various forms of peacemaking. The first is that of the Italian Renaissance. Francesco Petrarch, Pico della Mirandola, and Girolamo Savonarola present very different examples of peace. Petrarch’s is that of political order brought about by the prince and based upon Classical Stoic models and the political image of the Roman Empire. Pico takes another aspect of ancient Stoic thought: the peace of the philosopher, the inner calm and tranquillity that leads to union with divinity and the true order of the cosmos. Savonarola, on the other hand, recapitulates much of the Western medieval tradition of peacemaking with a fresh new vision of apocalyptic peace that merges with Florentine civic humanism: in the final days a last world emperor would bring peace and order, the conversion of all non-Christian peoples, and a golden age of peace and justice.

Northern Humanists[edit]

Erasmus by Holbein

In northern Europe such humanists as John Colet, Erasmus, and St. Thomas More drew their inspiration from several sources. These included the humanism of Renaissance Italy, to be sure. Yet they also came from along tradition of Christian piety and learned humanism that was a major factor in the intellectual life of the Middle Ages. In England the “political poets” of the late Middle Ages and the long tradition of social sermons, prophetic visions, and penitentials helped set the stage for the blend of humanism, peacemaking, and social protest that we see in the London Reformers, including John Colet, St. Thomas More and Juan Luis Vives.

On the Continent similar strains of late medieval humanism and piety are evident in the background and education of Desiderius Erasmus and many of his circle, most especially in the influence of Thomas à Kempis, the Brethren of the Common Life, and the Devotio Moderna, a combination of the simple imitation of Christ and the apostles typical of many medieval reform movements and a new awareness of the importance of education for the formation of Christian personal and social values. By the end of the fifteenth century this emphasis on education combined with the new invention of print to produce a movement for reform that, while it borrowed some inspiration from Italian humanism, really set out on its own original course in parallel to the Italians.

Age of Encounter[edit]

Bartolomé de Las Casas

Latin America during the Spanish and Portuguese conquest witnessed the efforts by European peacemakers to bring justice out of exploitation, peace from wars of conquest, and a society based upon the Gospels from one that sought to use the worst of the feudal and new capitalist systems to enrich the few at the expense of the vast majority of the peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Important figures include Pedro de Córdoba and Antonio de Montesinos on Hispaniola, Bartolomé de Las Casas in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Central America, Juan Fernandez de Angulo in Colombia, Peter of Ghent (Pedro de Gant), Juan de Zumárraga, Toribio de Benavente (Motolinía) and other Mexican Franciscans; José de Anchieta and Antonio Vieira in Brazil; the Jesuits and their Reducciones in Paraguay and Argentina.[5] The efforts of the missionaries resulted in many reforms at the Spanish Court including the promulgation of the New Laws in November 1542.

Catholic Universalism[edit]

At the same time papal traditions built upon the universalist ideas of Dante and Pierre Dubois, while the new internationist thought of Francisco de Vitoria, Emeric Crucé, Abbot Charles de Saint Pierre and others helped shape a new consciousness of the multipolarity of the new worlds discovered by the Europeans. The tradition of social criticism combined with high moral purposes of reform and renovation of Christian life so central to Renaissance humanists like Erasmus and Thomas More survived the growing autocracy in both church and state and the spread of intolerance brought about by the Reformations and Religious Wars. In the generations after Erasmus this humanism flourished most strongly in the French intellectual tradition that leads almost directly to the Enlightenment and Revolution. Classical learning, an emphasis upon moral virtue, civil life and proper education of the gentleman and lady, the role of the courtier and the nobility of both sword and robe, and the moral impulse of reform were the hallmarks of a movement that infused French culture for centuries. François Rabelais, Michel de Montaigne, and Blaise Pascal offer variations on this tradition.

Modern Church (to c.1945)[edit]


Victor Hugo. Photo by Félix Nadar

The internationalist tradition lived on through the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, where it merged with more secular forms of international peacemaking. The nineteenth century was the great age of the peace conference and peace society, made up most often of aristocratic men reaching out to their peers across national boundaries in full expectation that an age of enlightenment was about to dawn. This would end irrational conflict through gentlemanly agreements and carefully constructed treaties and balances of power. While national policies were guided by a grim laissez-faire economic expansion, fierce colonial exploitation and competition, and a cult of the nation unrivaled in earlier ages, a new optimism spread among the very social circles responsible for these trends. Leading proponents of the new internationalism included Victor Hugo, Henri-Marie La Fontaine, Salvador de Madariaga y Rojo, Aristide Briand, and Maria Montessori.


Papal peacemaking in the twentieth century is one of a long process beginning with withdrawal from and suspicion toward the modern secular world, and an alliance with powers that seemed to promise a return to an outmoded order, and ending with an “opening” to the forces of modernity. These include an embrace of economic and social democracy and a trust in the free conscience and will of individual believers and other people of good will. It was a progress that came too late to prevent the holocausts of the century; yet that has been deeply informed and profoundly shaped by the crisis that these brought to modern Christian life. Leo XIII, Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII all offer testimony of this gradual process.

Fascism and Nazism[edit]

The rise of the dictators came as a shock to the institutional church. The assumption of obedience and the prior claim of the state to the consciences of its Christian citizens continued to determine the thought of the Catholic bishops of Germany throughout the Nazi regime and into World War II. Two studies,[6] generally considered classic treatments of the subject, have provided a series of illustrations of this point.

In 1933, the Vatican made a treaty with Germany, called the Reichskonkordat, that effectively ended German Catholic opposition to the Nazi regime. Afterwards, Chancellor Adolf Hitler characterized the treaty to his cabinet as "especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry."[7] Yet individual Catholic resistance to Nazism and fascism carried on the gospel tradition of peacemaking. Jacques Semelin in France; Cardinal van Roey in Belgium; Franz Jaegerstatter, Clement August von Galen, Erich Klausener, Theo Hespers, Bernhard Lichtenberg, Max Josef Metzger in Germany; Lauro De Bosis, the National Alliance, and the Ventotene group in Italy offer good examples.

Contemporary Catholicism (c.1965 – )[edit]

Opening of Vatican II. Eigenes Foto.


The generation between the calling of the Second Vatican Council (Oct. 11, 1962–Dec. 8, 1965) and the Velvet Revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989 marked a new era in the Catholic peace tradition. Pope John XXIII (1958–63) set off a revolution in Roman Catholic thought and life that, like most revolutions, harkened back to an earlier period for its models and inspiration and thus brought the church into a new age. Through his policy of aggiornamento the pope opened the church to the modern world and most of its progressive movements. He also turned the church away from a legalistic interpretation of ecclesial structure and from an intransigence to the modern world toward the fresh air of greater collegiality within the hierarchy and a broader voice for the laity who make up the church. In his encyclicals John seems to have stressed the Christian humanist tradition and its reliance on biblical and patristic sources, especially in his thought on war and peace. In so doing the pope began to replace the legal categories of just war with an ethical and historical approach that derives its chief inspiration from the gospels and that ultimately questions the very notion of war in the modern world. Vatican II, Mater et Magistra, and Pacem in Terris all placed Catholicism on a new footing as a peace church; while John's successors Paul VI and John Paul II furthered this agenda while maintaining traditional church teachings in many areas of individual and social morality

Among individuals and groups the most notable trends in Catholic practice have been the rise of conscientious objection in Europe, the work of individuals such as Lanzo Del Vasto, Danilo Dolci, the Irish Peace People (Mairead Corrigan, Betty Williams, Ciaran McKeown), Polish Solidarity, and Eastern European Velvet Revolutions, among whom Catholic took on key leadership roles.

Global South[edit]

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo with Néstor Kirchner, president of Argentina, in 2005.

Latin America[edit]

By 1960 and Vatican II several trends had come together in a uniquely new situation for Catholic peacemakers. These combined a new spirit of renewal and reform within the Catholic Church, while the impact of Marxism made itself felt profoundly throughout Latin America as a result of the successful Cuban revolution, and all over the post-colonial Third World as a new generation sought modes of existence that steered a careful course between what many perceived as the extremes of both Western and Soviet camps in the Cold War.

Oppression, poverty, and injustice cried out as never before for new solutions: yet the last three decades have not been easy ones to have foreseen: violent revolution often gave rise to even more violent repression, while first isolated individuals and then – with the help of a reform-minded church hierarchy – entire social movements and then nations began to experiment with and finally to learn the lessons of true nonviolent struggle. This culminated in successes for peacemaking that rivaled, and often exceeded anything in Europe. Church councils at Medellín, Sucre, Bogotá, and Puebla laid the groundwork for a new activism and a still-controversial liberation theology, while the examples of Catholic clergy and laity including Helder Camara, Oscar Romero,and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo helped define new forms of Catholic peacemaking.


In Africa issues of cultural identity, the dignity of the vast majority of the people, and the role of violence and nonviolence in the struggle for liberation emerged from a legacy of colonialism and deep racism have left their marks on all forms of life and thought. Growing from this is a theology that owes much to both the liberation theology of Latin America and to the civil-rights movement of the United States. In African theology this has sought to find meaning in the biblical book of Exodus: the liberation of the people of Israel from their bondage under the Pharaohs. Liberation takes on not only theological and ecclesiological meaning in the freeing of the African from Eurocentric forms of liturgy and theology; but also in the political realm. Jean Marc Ela, Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, the Kairos Covenant offer cogent examples of praxis.


In Asia, Catholicism emerged as one of the most vital test cases of the post-Constantinian church. The arrival of the church on the continent and in its eastern island rim accompanied European expansion and colonialism. The church remained attached to the cities and the Westernized elites. By the twentieth century, therefore, Catholicism encountered the growing hostility of Asian societies in the midst of liberation, often in the form of Marxist revolutions against Western, capitalist, and imperialist pasts. As Marxism spread, the Westernized nations of the region responded by embracing the “National Security” doctrine.

By the 1960s, however, all the factors of the Asian Catholic scene — marginality, the increasing poverty of the continent, the pressing need for social change caught between Marxist revolution and national-security reaction, and the church’s tradition of criticism – combined to make necessary a new pastoral mission. The church, already on the fringes in most of Asia, began to adopt the message of Vatican II and to accept its biblically proper place with the poor and oppressed — the truly marginal in Asian society. The Filipino “People Power” movement, the Indian theology of Aloysius Pieris, and Kim Chi-Ha in South Korea were important milestones in the development of peacemaking there.

United States[edit]

Catholic beginnings[edit]

Catholics first arrived in what is now the United States as a persecuted minority. Through the colonial and early republican periods their growth was slow; and they were subject to suspicion and outright prejudice. The Catholic Church’s solution was to draw in on itself, to protect itself from hostility and to continue nurturing its own traditions and institutions in a society that it often viewed with suspicion and alienation. With the great waves of immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came millions of Catholics, predominantly from the impoverished classes of southern and eastern Europe and Ireland, who greatly increased Catholicism’s presence in the United States but who also deepened its association with foreign cultures, alien political systems, and suspect allegiances.

Catholics of the immigrant generations remained urban, impoverished, and subject to the worst forms of prejudice and discrimination. Peace in the Catholic tradition always retained a strongly “personalistic” strain that merged well with the immigrants’ suspicion of institutions; Catholic moral teaching retained the medieval exaltation of conscience above human law that many Protestant mainline churches had abandoned in favor of the state’s authority; Catholic social thought by the early twentieth century was beginning to be clearly critical of many aspects of capitalist industrial economy and society. The Catholic Church’s universality bound Catholics to their coreligionists all over the world; while the church’s claims to being above society, and certainly to being distinct from the mainstream of American culture, provided it both institutionally and individually with a reservoir from which later dissent could flow.

World Wars[edit]

With the twentieth century and World War I, American Catholics began to emerge from their isolation. The immigrant church, in fact, began to go out of its way to assert its Americanness and ultra-loyalty. There was little Catholic protest against World War I, although Ben Salmon was a notable exception. Ben Salmon was a conscientious objector during the war and outspoken critic of Just War theology. The Catholic Church denounced him and The New York Times described him as a "spy suspect." The US military (in which he was never inducted) charged him with desertion and spreading propaganda, then sentenced him to death (this was later revised to 25 years hard labor).[8]

Dorothy Day in 1934.

In May 1933 in New York City, two American Catholics, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founded a new Catholic peace group, the Catholic Worker Movement, that would embody their ideals of pacifism, commitment to the poor and to fundamental change in American society. By 1941, just before Pearl Harbor, 97% of all Catholics polled opposed U.S. entry into World War II, far greater than the percentage of any Protestant denomination. In theory and until the attack on Pearl Harbor, then, opposition to war, including pacifism, had a respectable and widespread appeal among American Catholics. This opposition took several forms, including the internationalist approach of CAIP (Catholic Association for International Peace). The Catholic hierarchy was almost universally opposed to the Burke-Wadsworth Act conscription bill of 1940. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Catholic opposition to the war and the draft collapsed. Catholics, like most Americans, became fervent supporters of the war, both out of patriotic duty and from a sense of the justness of the struggle.

Out of a total of 21 million Catholics only 223 claimed IV-E CO status, conscientious objection to military service; 135 were eventually classified, a grand leap from the four Catholics out of the 3,989 COs to World War I [352], but a minuscule percentage of the total 11,887 conscientious objectors to World War II. Most Catholic objectors chose I-A-O status, noncombatant military service, generally as unarmed medics on the front lines. Unlike the exclusion of Catholics, Jews, and mainline Protestant churches from CO status in World War I, Burke-Wadsworth did provide for Catholic objection, but the prejudice and scepticism of draft boards and of many potential Catholic supporters about the pacifist tradition in their own church made applications difficult. It is not surprising then that in addition to these 135 Catholic conscientious objectors, 61 Catholics refused induction and were imprisoned, again a small proportion of the 6,068 jailed during the war for noncooperation.[9]

Frida and Daniel Berrigan, 2008. Photo: Thomas Good

Vietnam and after[edit]

After the war Catholic peacemaking narrowed down to a very few institutions, including the Catholic Worker Movement,[10] and individuals, including Dorothy Day, Robert Ludlow, Ammon Hennacy, and Thomas Merton. By the late 1950s, however, these small beginnings began to bear fruit in a more widespread religious peace movement that then blossomed during the Vietnam War. The impetus of the war and the reform impuse of Vatican II created a new Catholic peace movement that included the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister and the Catonsville Nine. After the war, activities were carried on by such individuals as Joseph Fahey and Eileen Egan who were instrumental in the creation of Pax Christi and continuing Catholic peace efforts into the 20th century. Other Catholic peacemakers have included Cesar Chavez, John Dear, the Sanctuary movement, and Witness for Peace.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987
  2. ^ “Sainthood and Suicide. The Motives of the Martyrs of Córdoba, A.D. 850-859,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 20, 1, 1990: 59-89
  3. ^ See Interactive map of Peace and Truce of God. at
  4. ^ See interative map at:
  5. ^ See Interative Map of Jesuit Reducciones at:
  6. ^ See Guenther Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965); and Gordan Zahn, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars: A Study in Social Control (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962)
  7. ^ Carroll, James (October 1999). "The Holocaust and the Catholic Church". Atlantic Magazine. Retrieved 2012-01-10. 
  8. ^ Staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship (2007). "The Life and Witness of Ben Salmon". Sign of Peace 6.1 (Spring 2007). 
  9. ^ See Interactive Map of World War II camps for conscientious objectors at:,_CPS_Camps.html
  10. ^ See Interactive Map of Catholic Worker houses at: