The Message for the World Day of Peace and the social-conflict teaching of John Paul II

Today, the Vatican released the Holy Father’s message to the 50th World Day of Peace. It is an interesting document, taking as its theme nonviolence. The Holy Father says:

On this occasion, I would like to reflect on nonviolence as a style of politics for peace. I ask God to help all of us to cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values. May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life. When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promotors of nonviolent peacemaking. In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms.

(Emphasis supplied.) The message goes on to extol the value of nonviolence as, as the Holy Father puts it, “a style of politics.” While not as extensive as an encyclical or even some of the longer addresses that the Holy Father has given, it certainly represents an authentic exercise of the Holy Father’s social magisterium.

But we are troubled, we suppose, by what, exactly, the Holy Father means by nonviolence. While actual violence in the sense of taking up arms and taking to the streets is to be viewed as a last resort, governed carefully by the Church’s clear doctrine on revolt and resisting illegitimate rules, we think the Holy Father means more than mere exclusion of actual violence. He seems to point toward the exclusion of conflict. For example, he says,

Nonviolence is sometimes taken to mean surrender, lack of involvement and passivity, but this is not the case. When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she clearly stated her own message of active nonviolence: “We in our family don’t need bombs and guns, to destroy to bring peace – just get together, love one another… And we will be able to overcome all the evil that is in the world”. For the force of arms is deceptive. “While weapons traffickers do their work, there are poor peacemakers who give their lives to help one person, then another and another and another”; for such peacemakers, Mother Teresa is “a symbol, an icon of our times”. Last September, I had the great joy of proclaiming her a Saint. I praised her readiness to make herself available for everyone “through her welcome and defence of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded… She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crimes – the crimes! – of poverty they created”. In response, her mission – and she stands for thousands, even millions of persons – was to reach out to the suffering, with generous dedication, touching and binding up every wounded body, healing every broken life.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) Francis goes on to say,

This is also a programme and a challenge for political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives: to apply the Beatitudes in the exercise of their respective responsibilities. It is a challenge to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment, or seek to win at any cost. To do so requires “the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process”. To act in this way means to choose solidarity as a way of making history and building friendship in society. Active nonviolence is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict. Everything in the world is inter-connected. Certainly differences can cause frictions. But let us face them constructively and non-violently, so that “tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity,” preserving “what is valid and useful on both sides”.

(Emphasis supplied.) To some extent, therefore, the Holy Father seems to exclude social conflict altogether. To the extent that he does, he has overlooked an important source of teaching for the question of “frictions” in society: the magisterium of his predecessor, St. John Paul. In some regards, the Holy Father’s Message is consistent with John Paul’s teaching, but in other regards it seems to us that the Holy Father seeks to take a step back from some of John Paul’s really very radical conclusions.

And it may well be a conscious decision to step back. It is not as though the Holy Father does not acknowledge a debt to John Paul. In the Message, he says,

Nor can we forget the eventful decade that ended with the fall of Communist regimes in Europe. The Christian communities made their own contribution by their insistent prayer and courageous action. Particularly influential were the ministry and teaching of Saint John Paul II. Reflecting on the events of 1989 in his 1991 Encyclical Centesimus Annus, my predecessor highlighted the fact that momentous change in the lives of people, nations and states had come about “by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice”. This peaceful political transition was made possible in part “by the non-violent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth”. Pope John Paul went on to say: “May people learn to fight for justice without violence, renouncing class struggle in their internal disputes and war in international ones”.

(Emphasis supplied.) It will be seen shortly that there may be something of an equivocation here, since John Paul referred to class struggle in its Marxist sense in Centesimus annus, as distinct from social conflict more broadly conceived. But that aside, reading this passage consistently with the whole message, the Holy Father seems to quote John Paul for the proposition that social conflict was to be deplored totally.

However, a close reading of John Paul’s social magisterium shows that the saint acknowledges not only that social conflict was permissible under certain circumstances but also that, under the right conditions, it could be positive. We begin with his 1991 social encyclical, Centesimus annus, in which John Paul teaches us that:

From the same atheistic source, socialism also derives its choice of the means of action condemned in Rerum novarum, namely, class struggle. The Pope does not, of course, intend to condemn every possible form of social conflict. The Church is well aware that in the course of history conflicts of interest between different social groups inevitably arise, and that in the face of such conflicts Christians must often take a position, honestly and decisively. The Encyclical Laborem exercens moreover clearly recognized the positive role of conflict when it takes the form of a “struggle for social justice”; Quadragesimo anno had already stated that “if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice”.

However, what is condemned in class struggle is the idea that conflict is not restrained by ethical or juridical considerations, or by respect for the dignity of others (and consequently of oneself); a reasonable compromise is thus excluded, and what is pursued is not the general good of society, but a partisan interest which replaces the common good and sets out to destroy whatever stands in its way. In a word, it is a question of transferring to the sphere of internal conflict between social groups the doctrine of “total war”, which the militarism and imperialism of that time brought to bear on international relations. As a result of this doctrine, the search for a proper balance between the interests of the various nations was replaced by attempts to impose the absolute domination of one’s own side through the destruction of the other side’s capacity to resist, using every possible means, not excluding the use of lies, terror tactics against citizens, and weapons of utter destruction (which precisely in those years were beginning to be designed). Therefore class struggle in the Marxist sense and militarism have the same root, namely, atheism and contempt for the human person, which place the principle of force above that of reason and law.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) Not enough attention has been devoted to John Paul’s teaching on social conflict. It is remarkably rich and deep. And it is surprising. Here, the pope who spearheaded the final battle against the atheistic communism of the Soviet Union, the pope with the highest praise, we are told, for American-style capitalism, teaches us not only that social conflict is not always and everywhere forbidden but also that it is “inevitable” in historical terms. And he roots his conclusion in the magisterium of Leo XIII, who (along with St. Pius X) is often cited for what amounts to a quietism in social questions. Thus, the pope finds support for social conflict stretching back to the very beginning of the Church’s social teaching. But there are clear limits to such conflict. What is forbidden is an amoral, exterminationist view that seeks only the annihilation of one’s class opponents. John Paul (and Pius XI before him) indicate that the goal, as in all political action, ought to be the common good.

Now, one could, as the Holy Father does in his message today, take a minimalist view of social conflict. And it is true—acknowledging again that there may be an equivocation in the use of the term—that John Paul called for an end to class struggle in Centesimus annus. But it must be noted also that John Paul never excluded outright opposition in social questions. Far from it, in fact. In Laborem exercens, his 1981 encyclical on labor, he observes,

Catholic social teaching does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the “class” structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life. They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions. However, this struggle should be seen as a normal endeavour “for” the just good: in the present case, for the good which corresponds to the needs and merits of working people associated by profession; but it is not struggle “against” others. Even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition towards others, this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of “struggle” or in order to eliminate the opponent. It is characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people. In this consists its social power: the power to build a community.

(Emphasis supplied.) To the extent that there is “a character of opposition towards others,” John Paul tells us in both Laborem exercens and Centesimus annus that this is positive when it is opposition aimed toward the common good and social justice. It is when opposition is exalted for its own sake or pursued for the extermination of opponents that the serious moral problems crop up. At any rate, it does not require much imagination to see that there is some range of freedom of means available to those who pursue social justice and the common good.

Here, an especially clever interlocutor might cite St. Thomas, ST IIa IIae q.64 a.2 ad 3, and say, well, when one departs from the order of reason, one loses one’s human dignity and becomes as a beast, so the Pope’s caution against stringent social conflict, which may be more akin to Marxist class struggle, may overstate the matter. One needn’t be a Stalinist to see the consequences of the argument. Certainly, it is a departure from the order of reason to prize a proper good to the common good. Charles de Koninck, in the reply to the first objection in The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists, taking up this question, says,

But the dignity with which the rational creature is invested on account of its end is so dependent upon this end that the creature can lose it as it can lose the attainment of its end. “By sinning, man sets himself outside the order of reason, and consequently, he loses human dignity, as namely man is naturally free and existing for himself, and he places himself in some way in the servitude of animals… For the bad man is worse than an animal.” [this is from ST IIa IIae q.64 a.2 ad 3 – pjs] Far from excluding the ordination of his private good (or his proper good when this is understood as not already including the common good) to the common good, or from making it indifferent to the common good, as though this ordination were purely a matter of freedom of contradiction, the dignity of the intelligent creature involves, on the contrary, the necessity of this ordination. Man fails in his human dignity when he refuses the very principle of that dignity: the good of the intellect realized in the common good. He subjects himself to the servitude of the animals when he judges the common good to be a foreign good. The perfection of human nature is so little an assurance of dignity that it suffices for man to turn himself inward upon his own dignity as upon a sufficient reason and first foundation, in order to fail to attain his being-for-self.

(Emphasis supplied.) Social conflict presupposes either that the common good has not been rightly understood or that someone is not acting in accord with the common good. They then seek to disrupt the ordination of their proper good(s) to the common good and, thereby, lose their dignity as humans. This, then, brings them within Thomas’s sharp statement. To this clever Aristo-Thomisto-Marxist interlocutor, one might say that this is true, but public authority is necessary to implement Thomas’s conclusion. And it is passing hard to imagine that public authority would be present on either side of this situation for the usual reasons. Furthermore, note the precise turn of De Koninck’s argument: anyone who judges the common good to be an alien good loses his human dignity, the personalist and the totalitarian alike. Thus, the Marxist engaged in eliminationist class struggle in the name of an ultimately alien common good has just as serious a fault with his dignity in Thomistic terms as the individualist-capitalist who prefers his proper good to the common good. Enough of this, though. Back to John Paul.

Certainly, merely saying that social conflict is not always and everywhere forbidden is radical. But the radicalness of John Paul’s approach goes beyond that. To appreciate it, one should look to other interventions of the magisterium treating upon Marxism and class struggle. For example, the 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As everyone knows, at its inception, there were disquieting elements of then-current Marxism present in liberation theology. Because of the admixture of Marxist thought, the Instruction contains sustained magisterial analysis, going far beyond, say, Octogesima adveniens or even Quadragesimo anno, of Marxism. In that document, Cardinal Ratzinger observed:

For the Marxist, the <praxis>, and the truth that comes from it, are partisan <praxis> and truth because the fundamental structure of history is characterized by <class- struggle>. There follows, then, the objective necessity to enter into the class struggle, which is the dialectical opposite of the relationship of exploitation, which is being condemned. For the Marxist, the truth is a truth of class: there is no truth but the truth in the struggle of the revolutionary class.

The fundamental law of history, which is the law of the class struggle, implies that society is founded on violence. To the violence which constitutes the relationship of the domination of the rich over the poor, there corresponds the counter-violence of the revolution, by means of which this domination will be reversed.

The class struggle is presented as an objective, necessary law. Upon entering this process on behalf of the oppressed, one “makes” truth, one acts “scientifically”. Consequently, the conception of the truth goes hand in hand with the affirmation of necessary violence, and so, of a political amorality. Within this perspective, any reference to ethical requirements calling for courageous and radical institutional and structural reforms makes no sense.

The fundamental law of class struggle has a global and universal character. It is reflected in all the spheres of existence: religious, ethical, cultural and institutional. As far as this law is concerned, none of these spheres is autonomous. In each of them this law constitutes the determining element.

In particular, the very nature of ethics is radically called into question because of the borrowing of these theses from Marxism. In fact, it is the transcendent character of the distinction between good and evil, the principle of morality, which is implicitly denied in the perspective of the class struggle.

(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) To borrow an old Marxist chestnut, John Paul stands the Marxist approach to class struggle on its head. Recall that John Paul acknowledges that social conflict is inevitable in historical terms (but not the fundamental law of history) and that Christians are called upon to take sides in the conflict. But John Paul denies completely the concept that social conflict is truth. Instead, he teaches that social conflict takes place in the framework of truth. The framework of truth includes the moral and juridical considerations John Paul holds to be objective and absolute. And these moral and juridical considerations exclude the exterminationist, total-war approach condemned by Leo, Pius, and John Paul. Thus, the pernicious consequences of class struggle—political amorality, the denial of morality itself—identified by Cardinal Ratzinger are avoided. In other words, John Paul saves social conflict from the errors of Marxist class struggle as the Church identified them.

We will lay aside the question of whether or not the magisterial characterization of Marxism in the Instruction (or in Centesimus annus or Laborem exercens) is accurate for each and every instantiation of Marxism. It probably is not, as Marxism may be said in many ways and Marxists frequently disagree with each other about the precise contours of Marxist thought. However, it is plain that the Church’s understanding, complete or not, of Marxist class struggle up to 1991 was very much on John Paul’s mind when he wrote Centesimus annus, and that understanding is important to understand just how far John Paul was willing to go to in support of positive social conflict. To put it another way: it is not hugely important whether or not the Instruction categorizes the spectrum of Marxist thought, what is important is that it reflects the Church’s understanding of class struggle in the Marxist sense during the first part of John Paul’s reign.

What, therefore, do we have in John Paul’s magisterium? Several things. We have a statement that social conflict is, in historical terms, inevitable. Groups in society will inevitably come into opposition. When that happens, Christians have a duty to choose sides. This conflict can take on the character of opposition, provided that the opposition is pointed toward the common good and social justice. Opposition in these circumstances is positive, to use John Paul’s phrase. It is when the opposition takes on the character of total war, of seeking to annihilate one’s opponents at any cost without reference to objective moral and juridical norms, that social conflict becomes impermissible.

On one hand, therefore, the Holy Father’s message today reflects John Paul’s thinking. Recall that he says,

It is a challenge to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment, or seek to win at any cost. To do so requires “the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process”. To act in this way means to choose solidarity as a way of making history and building friendship in society. Active nonviolence is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict. Everything in the world is inter-connected. Certainly differences can cause frictions. But let us face them constructively and non-violently, so that “tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity,” preserving “what is valid and useful on both sides”.

(Emphasis supplied.) He recognizes, we think, the aspects of social conflict that John Paul recognizes, notably that, as a historical fact, it is inevitable. He also recognizes that the total-war approach to social conflict is impermissible; one simply may not seek to win at any cost. As we have seen at length above, these are key points in John Paul’s teaching on social conflict.

Another brief digression, if you’ll bear with us. We probably do not have room here to unpack the Holy Father’s meaning when he talks about solidarity as “a way of making history.” But it is a particularly interesting phrase, given what we have seen so far. Perhaps we are predisposed to seeing it this way, but the expression seems to be a literal negation of the Marxist concept of history as class struggle. Furthermore, while John Paul did not speak in terms of making history through solidarity, one could read numbers 39 and 40 of Sollicitudo rei socialis in these terms, especially as John Paul saw solidarity as the key toward moving away from the “politics of blocs” and the collapse of imperialism, two major features of politics in the 20th century in his view. Whether or not the Holy Father intended to point in this direction and toward the famous “end of history” discussed at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union is an open question, which we will ultimately lay aside, too. However, it is an interesting and evocative phrase that probably does merit exploration.

However, returning to the matter at hand, we think that the Holy Father, in promoting nonviolence as a “style of politics,” takes a step back from the radical conclusions John Paul reached. Motivated by the common good and keeping in mind the limits imposed by morality, opposition is sometimes necessary. When properly understood, opposition can be positive. Now, we do not mean to underplay the importance of the limits articulated by John Paul. They are serious limitations that must be considered very carefully, but neither should they be seen as marking out a space that cannot be inhabited. For his part, the Holy Father seems to resist the conclusion that social conflict may be permissible in his message today, instead promoting small-scale solidarity and “diversified and life-giving unity,” however that is to be understood.

It would be perverse, it is safe to say, to spend a lot of time talking about the circumstances under which social conflict is permissible in a message for a World Day of Peace. At the same time, it seems strange to present an approach to resolving inevitable conflicts in society that minimizes opposition as a viable option. Certainly every effort should be made to resolve these inevitable conflicts through solidarity on a personal level and through efforts to achieve unity, but some conflicts require one party or the other to take on the character of opposition. The solution, of course, is to base politics on the common good, remembering that the common good of the state is peace. This, ultimately, is the insight John Paul brings to his discussion of social conflict. (Unsurprisingly, Pius XI left it there for him to develop.)

We have devoted a lot of space to the dubia submitted by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra, and Meisner to the Holy Father regarding Amoris laetitia, and we will not bore you with a rehearsal of that issue, except to note that it is John Paul’s magisterium that is in question there. Especially his major intervention on moral theology, Veritatis splendor. We are in the midst, it seems, of a great forgetting of John Paul’s pontificate. That one might overlook this or that document or speech or event is understandable. Between 1978 and 2005, John Paul produced a staggering amount of stuff, magisterial and otherwise, and it is likely that only John Paul was able to keep it all straight in his head. However, it is less understandable that major interventions of his pontificate, including Centesimus annus, Laborem exercens, and Sollicitudo rei socialis, are forgotten or mentioned briefly. Especially when they treat in detail a particular question, such as social conflict. Now, one can talk about broader trends in moral theology and traditional doctrine, but one has a much harder time getting around John Paul in the social magisterium, since, given the relative newness of the Church’s teachings and John Paul’s lengthy reign, he accounts for rather a lot of it.

Perhaps, as we go forward, the Holy Father’s comments, as with this message, will spark a ressourcement of John Paul’s teaching. It has gone from being misrepresented to being forgotten. Maybe in the next iteration, it will simply be followed.