Donate now

War and Peace and Religion

On the Spiritual Dimension in International Relations

ROME, MARCH 18, 2006 ( The Catholic Church’s role in promoting peace is the subject of a recently published book by Cardinal Renato Martino. The slim volume, in the form of an extended essay, is entitled “Pace e Guerra” (War and Peace) and is published so far only in Italian by Cantagalli.

Cardinal Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, starts with a review of key biblical and theological concepts before passing on to a consideration of contemporary problems.

Cardinal Martino argues that war, and violence in general, is seen in the Bible as a grave evil and, given the impossibility of eliminating it totally, we are urged to limit its extent and negative consequences.

The other side of the coin, peace, is considered by both the Bible and theological reflection. It is seen not only as the absence of conflict, but also as an achieving of a full relationship with others and with God. During many centuries the greater part of theologians’ writings in the area of war and peace concentrated on the development of a series of norms to regulate the use of violence. But Cardinal Martino cites texts showing that the wider spiritual considerations also found a place in their writings.

Peace, the cardinal explains, is a gift from God, but one that requires our cooperation. We are free to accept or reject this offer. Unfortunately, history amply demonstrates that war and violence have been present too often, and for many the achievement of peace seems an impossible dream.

Turning to the contemporary situation, Cardinal Martino contends that the tremendous destructiveness of modern warfare makes it difficult to justify the use of armed force. For this reason the Church in recent times has argued in favor of using nonviolent means to resolve problems. Nevertheless, he adds, this is a strategy that requires a long time to show positive results, and to many it can seem an insufficient response to urgent short-term situations of injustice.

Vital truth

But it would be a mistake, the cardinal continues, to restrict discussion about war and violence merely to considering the immediate question of whether to engage in a specific conflict. Peace, in fact, is a long-term project that implies many factors.

To bring about peace we need to work for the universal common good and to continually strive to educate in favor of peace. The question of truth is also important, in the sense that peace is not just a negative phenomenon — the absence of conflict — but is achieved when we live in accordance with the requirements of natural law. Truth becomes vital in understanding these requirements, along with an adequate comprehension of the nature of human dignity, which, in turn, brings with it the awareness of belonging to a community.

Cardinal Martino also reflects on the nature of war in an increasingly globalized world. The combination of modern media and the power that technology gives to even a small number of terrorists means that the presence of violence and war becomes a reality that increasingly impinges on our consciousness. Even local conflicts and civil wars in faraway countries are broadcast directly into our living rooms.

Yet, a globalized world also makes it easier for those in favor of peace to spread their message and to mobilize public opinion. As well, it has become easier to promote dialogue on a global basis and to promote the work of international agencies and institutions that seek to avoid or limit conflicts.

The Church, for its part, offers to this globalized world the message of God, Creator and Father, who calls us to form a united family in which all are recognized as having the same rights and duties, based on our common human dignity.

The concluding part of the book distinguishes between pacifism and working for peace. Pacifism, despite its positive aspects, runs the risk of becoming an intolerant ideology that is insensible to the complexity of problems, Cardinal Martino contends. What is needed, and what Pope John Paul II worked for, the cardinal argues, is a commitment in favor of peace.

A myth of liberalism The role of religion in the sphere of relations between states was the subject of a 2005 book by Scott M. Thomas, of the University of Bath, in England. “The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations” (Palgrave) looks at how religion is challenging traditional concepts held by many scholars as to how states and international society operate.

The “political mythology of liberalism,” Thomas notes, “is the myth of the modern secular state as our savior from the horrors of modern wars of religion or clashes between civilizations.” In addition, the terrorist attacks carried out Sept. 11, 2001, and since then, also raised concerns about the threat from religious fundamentalism.

But in part the worries expressed over religion’s role in exacerbating conflicts is due to the fact that scholars have taken off their blinkers and their vision is no longer distorted by the limitations of materialism, positivism and Marxism. Religion has always been a part of politics, just as it is a part of society and culture in general, Thomas points out.

At the same time it is evident that we are in the midst of a sort of global resurgence of religion. This, Thomas argues, is due to a crisis of modernity, in which faith in the ability of science and technology to solve all problems is no longer so sure. This has been accompanied by a change in the nature of conflicts in recent years, so that intrastate divisions are now more common than interstate warfare. In these civil conflicts ethnic and religious factors tend to play a greater role.

Soulcraft and statecraft

While religion can sometimes be a cause of division, Thomas also notes that a variety of religious groups and traditions have helped in the area of conflict resolution. The increased role of what he terms “faith-based diplomacy” is not fuzzy idealism. Rather, it combines a twofold realism: one that takes into account the political problems and divisions; and one that is aware of “the world’s divine purposes.”

This diplomacy seeks to incorporate religion into the tools of statecraft and rejects secular rationalism. It also aims at a more far-reaching change in society, by transforming people’s relationships with God and with others.

Thomas then asks: What does religion bring to the negotiating table? He answers:

— Motives for peace are rooted in a deep religious identity and sensibility.

— Religious leaders and institutions are familiar with local problems and are well positioned to act as mediators.

— The prayers and ritual acts of religion can provide useful means in the process of healing and reconciliation.

— Because of their spiritual authority religious leaders have a unique capacity to reconcile groups.

Thomas dedicates a chapter to argue that religion can play a vital role in the projects of building up civil society and promoting democracy. In the past, he notes, Western governments often supported a narrow range of organizations, mainly in the area of human rights and civic education, in attempting to promote democracy.

Often, however, these efforts have failed, or have had only limited success. A more successful approach, Thomas maintains, would integrate religious values into such efforts, since constructing a community and public life requires the support of local cultural and religious elements.

Another chapter is devoted to examining the interaction between religion and economic development. Successful development, Thomas argues, can only occur if social and economic change corresponds with the moral basis of society. Religion and spirituality, it would seem, have a vital role to play in a postmodern world.

About ZENIT Staff

Share this Entry

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation