The peace that is possible

Published January 8, 2003

The Catholic Difference

Pope John Paul II’s message for the January 1 “World Day of Peace” gives everyone a chance to think carefully about the peace that is possible in this world – a topic that will be much on our minds in the difficult months ahead.

Written to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Blessed John XXIII’s historic encyclical, Pacem in Terris, the recent papal message picks up and develops Pope John’s teaching that peace is a matter of order: the “order” laid down by God. That “order” is composed of truth, justice, love, and freedom.

The truth that builds peace is the conviction that all human beings have rights endowed by God and corresponding duties toward others.

The justice that builds peace brings that recognition into public life through laws and political structures by which rights are protected and duties fulfilled.

The love that builds peace sees the face of our common humanity in the “other” and responds with generosity to his or her needs for the necessities of life.

And the freedom that builds peace requires that men and women throughout the world live according to the moral law inscribed by God on the human heart, for true freedom means doing the right thing for the right reasons – not just doing things “my way.”

Like Blessed John XXIII, John Paul II stresses the relationship of human rights and contemporary human rights movements to the cause of peace. Looking to the Revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe in particular, the Pope argues that human rights movements “were instrumental in replacing dictatorial forms of government with more democratic and participatory ones” – and that that epic transformation was itself a crucial part of work-for-peace. Revolutions of conscience can create non-violent political revolutions: that is a lesson of contemporary history that, in John Paul II’s view, bears constant repetition.

“The question of peace cannot be separated from the question of human dignity and human rights,” John Paul insists. Which means that peace cannot be separated from politics, and that politics – even international politics – must be understood as an arena in which moral truths can have a decisive impact. International politics, the Pope writes, are not a “free zone” in which the moral law holds no sway. Rather, because international politics, like every other form of politics, is a human activity, international public life is also subject to “a distinctive form of moral scrutiny.”

The adjective is crucial here: the moral reasoning appropriate to thinking through the tangle of problems that make up world politics is “distinctive.” Serious Catholics don’t think about international politics as if international politics were simply interpersonal relationships writ large. The commandment to love one’s neighbor is universally binding; the living-out of that commandment has a different moral texture when the question is war-and-peace than it does when the question is the family that lives next door. That is why the Church, for the past fifteen hundred years, has developed the just war tradition – because a distinctive structure of moral reasoning is required if the question becomes, “Is the use of proportionate and discriminate military force necessary to defend justice, freedom and order?”

Writing shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Blessed John XXIII showed that he could “think outside the box” in a world which imagined the Cold War to be a fixed reference point for the foreseeable future. That same kind of thinking of required of us today, the Pope suggests, if we are to do serious work for peace. Conventional thinking, to take one example, suggests that terrorism is simply a fact of life. Catholic thinking “outside the box” asks us to imagine how addressing the lethal threat of the terror networks and the grave danger posed by rogue states with weapons of mass destruction – even if that means the use of military force – can in fact contribute to the peace that is possible in his world: the peace of a law-governed international community, the peace of world order.

That is the peace that can and must be built in the twenty-first century. No Catholic in America should doubt that a large responsibility for building this peace – the peace that is possible – rests on the United States.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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