Our world is in need of peace. All around the globe, and especially in the United States, we see the rotten fruits of a society that is not at peace. There is violence in the streets, rage on social media, and discord in our homes. Deep social divisions make it nearly impossible to cooperate with each other in pursuit of the common good.
Rather than allow an entrenched pessimism to set in, however, we can remind ourselves of the Beatitudes, which were included in this past Sunday’s readings. Here, Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9). These words remind us that the cause of peace is never futile.
But what does it mean to work for peace and how can we practically do so in a world that is often at odds with itself? The Pope’s writings—especially his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti—offers a number of practical insights.
We must understand that peace is not merely the absence of war (FT 233). Even if this is the popular understanding of the word, we know that the road to peace often involves conflict and confrontation. This becomes obvious when we consider the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, as well as the many brave and vocal Catholics who have spoken out about the Church’s failures in addressing decades of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable populations. In different ways, these have all been efforts to speak out against the perversion of power. Instead of using their power to serve the common good, many have used it to suppress their victims’ concerns and criticisms. This only creates the appearance of peace.
To give voice to injustice, even when it causes disruption to a “peaceful” status quo, is to advance the cause of peace. Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised” (EG 218). As Francis suggests, it is wrong to assume that “silence” is always peace, as silence can often be the product of injustice.
Consider also the poor. Too often, those with means will avoid their responsibility to help them. Francis writes, “In the end, a peace which is not the result of integral development will be doomed; it will always spawn new conflicts and various forms of violence” (EG 219). It is clear that any peace that coexists with the structural injustices that marginalize the poor and perpetuate poverty is only illusory. This peace is based on a belief that the poor must suffer so that the rich can live as they want. For this reason, it is merely an “apparent peace” created by politicians who silence the cry of the poor with promises of money, but who do nothing to end the evil of inequality (EG 218, FT 236).
Francis also criticizes the way in which “fear and mistrust” is used in misguided attempts to create peace (FT 26). This “strange contradiction” often succeeds only in driving people into the comfort of their familiar circles and makes it harder to relate to those who are different. How often do politicians use the weapon of fear to garner support for an unpopular policy or to win an election? Politicians know that anxiety is a powerful tool. People who are anxious can be easily whipped up into “mobs” by the “powers that be” (EG 220). Their plans might work in the short-term, but in the long-term the cost is peace, and we all pay.
We must understand that peace is not a product that can be manufactured through the application of skill and technological know-how (Caritas in Veritate 71-72, FT 231). While negotiation and diplomatic compacts are important tools that help us work for peace, peace should never be equated with the publication of a resolution or treaty. Peace is, fundamentally, a process. Francis writes, “There is no end to the building of a country’s social peace; rather, it is an open-ended endeavor, a never-ending task that demands the commitment of everyone and challenges us to work tirelessly to build the unity of the nation’” (FT 232).
If the absence of conflict is not necessarily peace, we can also say that the presence of conflict does not necessarily indicate the absence of peace. In Fratelli Tutti, Francis reflects on the passage in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus states, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Importantly, Jesus is not encouraging conflict but rather encouraging us “to endure it when it inevitably comes, lest deference to others, for the sake of supposed peace in our families or society, should detract from our own fidelity” (FT 240). Accordingly, peace begins when we follow in Christ’s footsteps. Jesus did not shirk confrontation, but his efforts to unite people in his love and truth nevertheless still sparked conflict. One of the more striking passages from Francis’s recent encyclical is that “authentic reconciliation does not flee from conflict, but is achieved in conflict, resolving it through dialogue and open, honest and patient negotiation” (FT 244).
When parties work together for the sake of justice, the potential paths to peace will vary. Francis rejects the notion that peace proposals must satisfy certain criteria or that peace is something “blandly uniform” (FT 228). There is room for creative solutions. Francis writes, “A wide variety of practical proposals and diverse experiences can help achieve shared objectives and serve the common good.” In his writings—whether on popular piety, evangelization, or the principle of subsidiarity—the pope exalts a kind of “grassroots” approach to unity and charity. It may not look like the same from place to place, but if it is rooted in love and truth, we can be assured that the process is inspired by the Spirit.
Finally, truth transcends all boundaries and frees us from our narrow vision. Truth allows us to see through the false barriers that divide and prevent peace. In the encyclical, Francis describes several times just how important it is for us to retain a sense of the “transcendent” in daily life. Francis warns us that when we reject the transcendent in favor of radical individualism or relativism, violence is the inevitable result. He cites the parable of the Good Samaritan who “transcended narrow classifications,” when social norms dictated that he was well within his rights to pass by the injured man (FT 101).
Later in his cyclical, Francis speaks more about this transcendence when he quotes St. John Paul II’s Centessimus Annus,
If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. (CA 44)
If we want peace, the truth of the Christian faith cannot be hidden or set aside in the pursuit of a greater consensus in politics. The values that Christian revelation testifies to are fundamental human values, “values in the name of which we can and must cooperate, build and dialogue, pardon and grow” (FT 283).
Despite this teaching, there are those who would seek to use politics to impose truth on others. Such efforts are bound to fail, because rather than encouraging others to live out the Gospel in the fullest way possible, they inevitably subject the Gospel to the claims of politics. This ensures that the truth will be corrupted, and exposes people to exploitation by political factions. As Dignitatis Humanae taught, “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.”
This is why Francis proposes the path of dialogue, which seeks congruence between “the interests of society, consensus and the reality of objective truth. These three realities can be harmonized whenever, through dialogue, people are unafraid to get to the heart of an issue” (FT 212). As challenging as this is, true dialogue is nevertheless predicated on the existence of transcendent values that give rise to fundamental and enduring moral convictions (FT 211).
Needless to say, in the United States especially, we are far from a society that can truly engage in dialogue in pursuit of truth. Relativism has taken hold and truth has become subject to power. The fears of the Catholics Church, expressed over and over again for decades, is now reality. To work for peace in this country will require a concerted effort at dialogue. If such a dialogue cannot happen on a national scale, then it must start at the local level, between aggrieved parties, neighbors, and family members. Ultimately, peace can only be attained when we set aside our privileges, acknowledge our wrongs, and work toward reconciliation (FT 226-227).
While the path of peace requires confrontation, we must remember that the cause of peace is not advanced by violence. We should emulate the example of Jesus, whose work in service of others upset the status quo and changed human civilization forever. Peacemaking is a never-ending process rooted in dialogue that may at times give rise to conflict, but “a real and lasting peace will only be possible on the basis of a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation in the service of a future shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family” (FT 127). We are all brothers and sisters. This truth, if we can truly embrace it, is the heart of peace.