Pax Christi appeals to Pope and Synod to help Church embrace nonviolence

Pax Christi appeals to Pope and Synod to help Church embrace nonviolence

The Catholic Nonviolence Initiative urges Pope Francis and the Synod General Assembly to integrate the practice and spirituality of nonviolence into the Church’s life.

By Devin Watkins

“Nonviolence is not idealistic, only challenging.”

In a world marked by wars and polarization, the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative marks out a path toward a better way to resolve conflict and hatred.

The project overseen by Pax Christi International has taken the message of nonviolence to the Synod General Assembly and Pope Francis.

In an appeal, Catholic Nonviolence lamented the violence experienced in many parts of the world, especially in Israel and Palestine, Ukraine, Syria, and Sudan.

The appeal urged Synod members and the Pope to invite “the universal Church to integrate Gospel nonviolence explicitly into its life”.

The Initiative also requested a “robust description of nonviolence, key nonviolent practices, and the norms of a just peace ethic” to become part of official Church teaching, including an addition of the subject into the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

A Christian way of living

In an interview with Vatican News, Marie Dennis, senior director of the Initiative, shed light on the goals of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative and how Pope Francis has called the world to nonviolence.

The Initiative was born after a 2016 conference hosted in Rome by Pax Christi and the then-Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which brought together people seeking to employ nonviolent tools in local communities.

“We began listening to stories at a grassroots level by people who have been using nonviolent approaches in really dangerous situations successfully,” said Ms. Dennis.

The initiative seeks to engage in active dialogue with all levels of the Church, from the Holy See and dioceses to Catholic universities and local Church communities.

The purpose, said Ms. Dennis, is to invite the Church “to understand nonviolence more deeply and to recommit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence, believing that nonviolence was a central message of the Gospel and a way that Jesus lived.”

Nonviolence or non-violence?

Nonviolence, according to Ms. Dennis, is different than pacifism and is more than an absence of violence, which is implied by the spelling of the word with a hyphen: “non-violence”.

“We’re talking about nonviolence as a spirituality and a way of life,” she said, “but also as a broad spectrum of tools to prevent violence, interrupt violence, and to build societies that function peacefully and support everybody’s right to a dignified life.”

Nonviolence, then, spelled without the hyphen, offers a positive and active approach to promote peace.

Ms. Dennis in the studios of Vatican Radio

Pope’s support for nonviolence

According to Ms. Dennis, nonviolence is not a utopian ideal but rather a long-term solution to the conflicts rending our world today.

“When you look at the state of the world, including the most recent horrors in the Middle East,” she said, “what I think is becoming more and more evident is that nonviolence is the only way forward, that we will never get out of the situations we’re in by using more weapons.”

She upheld Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Peace in 2017, which bore the title “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace”, as well as his prayer intention for April 2023, which was “For a nonviolent culture”.

“We believe that framing some of what Pope Francis is calling for in the language and understanding of nonviolence can help people imagine how we get to the peaceful world that he is pointing us to,” said Ms. Dennis. “And that’s an important contribution of nonviolence.”

Reforming violent mentalities

The Catholic Nonviolence Initiative believes that people can be formed and taught to use nonviolent methods to resolve conflict.

Ms. Dennis offered the example of a young man from Sudan who had been involved in a militia a few years ago.

Despite being “well into a violent response” to his situation, the young man attended courses at university in Nairobi, Kenya, among which was a class on peace-building that focused on nonviolent strategies.

After the course, he gave up his former way of life in a Sudanese militia, bearing witness at a recent Pax Christi conference that his life changed after he “learned to solve problems without violence.”

“What we’re talking about is a cultural shift to build relationships that are respectful and careful between humans, and between humans and the earth, for that matter,” said Ms. Dennis.

File photo of Ms. Marie Dennis

Tools for conflict-resolution even at young age

As any parent knows, children can embrace violence—even starting with the simple act of shoving a classmate in response to a perceived slight—at a young age if exposed to it in school.

Education and formation in early childhood, therefore, are important tools for teaching younger generations to “shape a way of living that is respectful of other living beings,” according to Ms. Dennis.

She pointed to the example of a short video her granddaughter had made during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a teacher in a Montessori school, she taught two young students how to deal with an interpersonal conflict.

“They were really upset and angry at each other,” said Ms. Dennis. “And it was beautiful to see that there were actually tools that they could use to each exert their own wishes and speak their truth and come to some kind of a resolution.”