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Catholic Pacifism

A Catholic Worker Note on Non-violence
Written By  Dr. Thomas Loome and reprinted by permission of the author
 Dr. Loome
(pictured at Loome Theological Booksellers, Stillwater, Minnesota)

Catholic Worker pacifism is absolute.  It is an evangelical counsel of perfection not universally binding on all.  It is not therefore a command, but rather a vocation.  -- Dr. Loome
It has been [Catholic Worker] experience that others, even Catholics who should know better, all too often associate “pacifism” with “passivity.”  While the two terms sound a bit alike, they are utterly different in etymology and hence in meaning.  In short, to think that “pacifists” are “passive” in the face of evil is to misunderstand the Church’s teaching concerning “pacifism.”  “Pacify” is an active verb and means “to make peace” – that is, one does something; one is not passive; one actively seeks to make peace and hence to live out the seventh and greatest beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Mt 5:9)
That one must fight against evil is a moral obligation under any and all circumstances, especially when the evil takes the form of violence against the human person.  The question however, is this: what weapons shall one use to resist and to overcome evil?  How does one respond to violence non-violently?  Clearly one needs weapons, non-violent weapons.  Is there such a thing?In the face of violence the pacifist’s primary weapon is of course non-violent resistance (that is, one truly resists, but without responding to violence with yet more violence).

There are many other  “weapons of the spirit”, however, and they are set out in two key texts of St. Paul: “Purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.” (II Corinthians 6, 6-7).  But there is another Pauline text even more explicit than the first:


“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”  (Ephesians 6:10-18)


These then are the peace-maker’s weapons.  Who will dare to call them ineffectual and powerless?  Who will accuse the pacifist of doing nothing in the face of evil?  Who will count as naught such weapons as “the full armor of God”: firmness and courage (“stand your ground…stand firm”), “the belt of truth… the breastplate of righteousness… the shield of faith… the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God”… and “all kinds of prayer”?

The call to non-violence in embedded in the Christian message, from the Sermon on the Mount to the letters of St. Paul.  And yet, according to the teaching of the Church, non-violence or pacifism is not a universal command; it is rather an “evangelical counsel of perfection”.In the Catholic tradition there are two different forms non-violence may take: first, “absolute non-violence” which admits of no exception; second, “selective non-violence” which permits the use of force or of violence under stringent conditions.  The first is the absolute pacifism of Catholic Workers such as we; the second is the selective pacifism proper to the military and to the police.  Yes, physical constraint and the exercise of violent means to resist evil may perhaps be permissible, but only selectively, in specific cases where physical force is clearly necessary.  Non-violence needs no justification; violence does.Catholic Worker pacifism is absolute.  It is an evangelical counsel of perfection not universally binding on all.  It is not therefore a command, but rather a vocation.  On this reading of the New Testament the evangelical counsels – and there are many of them – oblige only the individual called by God to bear witness to a higher good.  Such goods are many and their renunciation can be an evangelical counsel for an individual and a living witness to the Gospel.There arises for Catholics, however, a real problem.  They are rarely if ever catechized concerning “the evangelical counsels of perfection” and thus are ignorant of marvelous ways of living the Christian life.  For most Catholics the only evangelical counsels they have ever heard of – if they have ever heard of even these – are poverty, celibacy, and obedience.  But there are other counsels of which two come to mind: the eremitical life and a life of non-violence or pacifism.  None of these counsels are obligatory for all but only for those individuals to whom God has given a special vocation.What unites all of the counsels is twofold: first, they represent the voluntary renunciation of a legitimate good (e.g. the right to own private property, the right to marry, the right to life in community, the right to defend oneself or others with the use of physical force); second, those who are led by God to the practice of an evangelical counsel must be men and women of prayer, convinced of the efficacy of prayer, trusting whole-heartedly in God, possessed of that fortitude and perseverance which only God can give.

Finally, those who voluntarily lead a life of absolute non-violence must see themselves as witnesses to that higher ideal set forth in the Sermon on the Mount: peacemakers are truly blessed and it is they who shall be called children of God.

One last thought: is our nation’s security endangered because of Catholic Workers who are pacifists?  We can only respond: not at all, not at all.  The scandal is not conscientious objection but rather the very real paucity of pacifists in the Catholic Church.  They are so few in number, and hence theirs is a precious witness that is all too often absent – for example, concerning our invasion and occupation of Iraq.  It’s a great pity, not least because Catholics are surrounded by “a cloud of witnesses” to non-violence – St. Martin or Tours, St. Francis of Assisi, and, in our own times, the recently beatified Mother Teresa and Franz Jägerstätter as well as our beloved Dorothy Day – pacifists one and all.

For the Church’s formal teaching on pacifism and conscientious objection there are two definitive texts: Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes: Paragraph 78, repeated almost verbatim in paragraph 2306 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“In the same spirit, we cannot but express our admiration for all who forgo the use of violence to vindicate their right and have recourse to those other means of defense which are available to weaker parties, provided it can be done without detriment to the rights and duties of others and of the community. 


To the extent that people are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until the coming of Christ; but insofar as they can vanquish sin by coming together in charity, violence itself will be vanquished and they will make these words come true: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Is 2:4)” –Gaudium et Spes 


“Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies.  They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church