Forty years ago this May, the United States bishops approved a landmark pastoral letter that opened with a line taken from the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 document on modern warfare: “The whole human race faces a moment of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity.”
Whether and how the human race has matured during the past six decades is debatable, but the weapons that prompted that initial alarm have grown more sophisticated, deadlier and more widespread than ever. That reality has led a U.S. cardinal to urge dramatic changes in the church’s traditional approach to war, moving away from the just war theory and placing nonviolence into a new and central role in church teaching.
It is gratifying, then, to see Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego raising the issue in today’s fraught climate, as he did at a March 1 speech at the University of Notre Dame. He does so not only as a reflection on what has already been agreed upon but also as a call to recognize “a new moment.” It is a moment marked by “the need to fundamentally renew and prioritize the claim of non-violent action as the central tenet of Catholic teaching on war and peace [emphasis in original].”
The call to acknowledge a “new moment” in pursuit of peace is not a radical departure from what the church has long recognized. Vatican II urged “a completely fresh reappraisal of war.” The U.S. bishops, in their pastoral letter, said the traditional approach that sought to limit resort to force was inadequate and endorsed the development of “a theology of peace.”
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Tom Roberts was NCR executive editor from October 2018 through April 2020. Tom was NCR editor from 2000-2008. He is the author of The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself (2011) and Joan Chittister: Her Journey from Certainty to Faith (2015), both published by Orbis Books.
With thanks to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) and Tom Roberts, where this article originally appeared.