There are two schools of thought in the Catholic Church about how to tackle tyranny. The traditional one is that it is justified to take up arms to defeat tyranny in certain circumstances. The other school of thought is that it is preferable to take the course of non-violent resistance.
The debate about the justification for armed insurrection will go on for as long as there are human beings with grievances or perceived grievances. It has been going on within the Catholic Church for centuries and it will continue to be a huge moral issue for many.
For some the answer is cut and dried. The use of armed force in any circumstances is always wrong. The Fifth commandment makes it clear. The people who take this view tend to take the moral high ground and lecture and condemn those who see no alternative to armed insurrection to end oppression. They usually belong to the comfortable class who are not directly affected by the oppression or injustice and who have been favoured in some ways by those in power.
The Catholic Church many centuries ago introduced the notion of the Just War and this was followed for many years, offering many in positions of power a way out of the dilemma about killing. However, ever since Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that theory has been almost abandoned within the Catholic Church. There can never be justification for the use of nuclear weapons by the powers since in this context the use of weapons of mass destruction would lead to the annihilation of the whole human race.
The Just War theory is no longer acceptable in Catholic theology as a way of dealing with disputes-international or otherwise. With the rise of Muslim extremists this debate is more sharply focussed. How are western countries, mainly Christian, to respond to the advance of the Muslim extremists like ISIS? Can an armed response be justified?
It would seem that Pope Francis is coming to the view that the use of violence is always wrong.
Sometimes, I read about a deceased politician or churchman: “He condemned violence on all sides’. It sounds good and reflects well on the deceased but as far as I am concerned the statement means nothing. It says nothing about the core convictions of the said person -nor does it show that he was a pacifist.
Condemning violence ‘on all sides’ does not mean that the condemner was making any kind of meaningful intellectual contribution to the debate about how to end violence and war. This kind of condemnation does not make any contribution to a better understanding of the context and background to the use of violence. Condemning violence ‘on all sides’, without making any distinctions, means equating the violence of the oppressed with the violence of the State. That is a complete distortion of the truth. You cannot equate the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor. To do so is to allow the oppressor off the hook. The oppressor will always have more easy access to the media to put forward their propaganda and to offer their excuses for using violence against those who are often described as ‘the men of violence’.
Condemning ‘the violence of both sides’ might of course endear one to the media especially the Dublin-based media. It does not make one a pacifist , that is one who is actively working to bring about justice and equality. Issuing condemnations of the violence of both sides from the pulpit or from the bishop’s house makes no contribution to the creating of the circumstances for a just and lasting peace. They sound good to those who are not involved and they are even acceptable to the oppressor, but they do not alleviate the suffering of the oppressed. Nor do they point to a way of breaking the cycle of violence in this country or in any other country.
In our context it was only when some courageous people began to take the IRA seriously and stopped condemning them that political progress was made in bringing about a cessation of armed struggle. It was only when leaders like Gerry Adams and John Hume showed courage and started talking that the possibility of a cessation of violence seemed possible. Of course, many wanted to jump on the bandwagon and claim credit. Many now choose to forget the key role played by Gerry Adams in opening the channels of communication.
Throughout the recent history of the world I admire those who courageously tackled the cycle of violence, and intervened to bring about a ceasefire and an end to repression -Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Bishop Helder Camara, Ernesto Cardenal, Monsignor Romero and Daniel Berrigan. These and others have made a huge contribution to securing peace and justice in our world.
They achieved what they did by taking a more nuanced approach to violence and recognising the historical and political causes of violence. They realised that it was a last resort when some people took up arms to overthrow tyranny, and they were honest in defining the primary and secondary violence. Honesty is always the way to go in trying to bring about the end of conflict and a peaceful situation. The next time I hear that he or she condemned violence ‘on all sides’ I will try to find out whose side the writer is on.