Ethics & Public Policy Center

Real-World Peace

Published in The Catholic Difference on January 10, 2002



In his recent World Day of Peace message, Pope John Paul II taught a truth many Catholics have seemingly forgotten: that “peace,” in the classic Catholic sense of the term, is a matter of order, the order that is built through law and politics.

After citing Vatican II’s teaching that peace is “the fruit of the right ordering of things with which the divine founder has invested human society,” John Paul reminded us that the “peace of order” has been the normative Catholic concept of peace for a very long time. As the Pope put it, more than fifteen hundred years ago St. Augustine argued that “the peace that can and must be built in this world is the peace of right order – tranquillitas ordinis, the tranquillity of order.” From Augustine’s City of God down to the modern papal magisterium, the Second Vatican Council, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when the Catholic Church says “peace” it means “order” – the order that is built through politics and law on the foundations of justice (informed by charity) and freedom.

Over the past forty years, though, this gritty, even worldly idea of peace has often been displaced in Catholic commentary by softer notions, heavily influenced by psychology. Classic Catholicism assumes that conflict is a constant in this world and teaches that conflict can be ameliorated, even resolved, through law and politics; the goal is not a world without conflict, but a world of order in which conflict doesn’t automatically lead to mass violence. Catholicism Lite seems to imagine conflict as the by-product of misunderstanding, frustration, or rage, and seems to suggest that conflict will be resolved by processes akin to therapy. Peace, on this understanding, is a matter of getting everybody to feel better about each other and about themselves.

Which is sheer utopianism.

“Peace” has many meanings. There is the “peace” that comes from a right relationship with God: the peace of inner serenity, which is a gift of grace. There is the “peace” of Isaiah’s vision of the “mountain…of the Lord,” where “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” [Isaiah 2:4]: this is the peace of the Kingdom of God, a peace of God’s making, not ours.

And then there is the “peace” of order. It is a humbler sort of peace. It coexists with bruised souls and broken hearts. It is a peace in which swords remain, sheathed or used to defend order, but are not yet beaten into plowshares. This is real-world peace, the Catholic Church teaches, and it can be built within and among nations.

We know this by experience, for this is the peace we enjoy within democratic political communities. No one would suggest that all Americans live serenely within a right relationship with God, or that our country is a conflict-free zone. Yet the United States is at peace: the peace of a just political order, which is no small achievement for a society of 280 million human beings of dramatic religious, racial, ethnic, and philosophical diversity. Why are we at peace? Because we have ways other than mass violence to resolve our conflicts: law and politics, legislatures and courts, the open debate of a civil society.

The same kind of “peace” obtains in those parts of the world that have decided to make diplomacy and law, not weapons, the instruments for resolving the inevitable conflicts that arise between nations. A war between France and Germany today is inconceivable. Why? Because the French and Germans have become saints? Please. Because there are no conflicts between them? Hardly. No, there is real-world peace in one historic cockpit of European conflict because a thick network of international political, legal, and economic institutions has given the French and the Germans other ways to settle their differences. It’s the peace of order.

Terrorism is a frontal assault on the possibility of order in world affairs. The international terror network must be dismantled to create an essential condition for the peace that can and must be built: the real-world peace of order, shaped by justice and freedom.

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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