Parsing the Peace Movement

Shortly after the war in Iraq had begun in earnest, Pope John Paul II, addressing a group of Italian military chaplains, referred to the “vast contemporary movement in favor of peace”.



A week later, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer at the U.N., Archbishop Celestino Migliore, suggested that “the extraordinary mobilization of men and women that we see almost everywhere, in these very days, indicates that the cause of peace is making great progress in the conscience of humanity.”

Here, Archbishop Migliore was perhaps borrowing a theme from the Vatican’s “foreign minister,” Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, who had recently spoken to an Italian Catholic magazine of a “great anxiety about peace” that he felt on the streets of Rome.

The Pope, as usual, took a long-range historical perspective and argued that the rejection of war as a normal or ordinary means of settling international conflicts pre-dated the U.N. Charter. That is certainly true. After the industrial-strength slaughters of World War I, no national leader (in a democracy, at any rate) could brag, with Napoleon, that he could easily afford to lose 30,000 men a month.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone learned the same lessons from 1914-18. Indeed, the democracies’ determination not to return to the bloodletting of World War I was a major factor in the world’s failure to check Hitler and German National Socialism, when that could have been done without risking a second global conflagration. Thus another lesson was, or should have been, learned: the determination not to use military force can, under certain circumstances, make the use of armed force more likely and more lethal in the near-term future.

Pope Pius XII developed the Church’s thought on armed force, law, and world politics in the post-World War II period. Against the claim that state sovereignty implied the absolute right to decide for war without reference to moral categories, the pope insisted that “wars of aggression” were immoral — because they could lead to disproportionate violence, and because they impeded the creation of a well-functioning international legal and political system. “Peace,” in the Catholic vocabulary, meant the rule of law in international public life. Later popes, including John XXIII and John Paul II, have fleshed out this idea, teaching that the “peace” of order — the peace of a law-governed international community — must be informed by justice, freedom, and truth.

So, yes, there has certainly been a shift in many, many consciences in recent decades. That change in hearts has made a difference theologically, and this evolving theology has clearly strengthened the role of the “last resort” criterion in the just war tradition.

But it is not at all clear what this welcome determination to pursue peace — the rule of law in international affairs — has to do with many of the demonstrations of recent months. In London this past February, a group of Iraqi exiles asked Jesse Jackson, master of ceremonies at the largest political demonstration in British history, to be allowed to speak to the crowd about Saddam Hussein’s brutalization of Iraq. Jackson told them no, that wasn’t appropriate, because this was about Bush and Blair, not Saddam Hussein. Which means, I submit, that Jesse Jackson wasn’t presiding over a peace demonstration, or an anti-war demonstration, but an anti-Anglo-American-policy demonstration.

Indeed, throughout Europe, what is described as a “peace movement” has been more of a free-for-all in which de facto support for maintaining Saddam Hussein in power has been married to a host of other agendas: anti-globalization, anti-“racism,” anti-global-warming, anti-homophobia, anti-Israel, anti-McDonald’s, anti-whatever. In Italy, those rainbow-striped Pace flags (ubiquitous in Roman windows in March) marked the re-emergence of the hard left after years in the political wilderness.

What, however, did any of this have to do with “peace” as the Catholic Church understands the term? That Pace and similar movements in Europe and America could not bring themselves to bring pressure to bear on the Saddam Hussein regime — that these movements could only imagine “peace” as “no coalition military action” — meant, in reality, that these movements ended up undercutting the effort to disarm Iraq through diplomatic and political means.

So yes, things have changed. Yes, consciences have been aroused to work for peace. Now those consciences must become informed.

George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.

George Weigel

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George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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