Understanding the Catholic view of peace and war

By Mark Schmidt

Special to The Witness

The late fourth century Roman writer Vegetius, in his book “Concerning Military Matters,” stated, “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” (“If you want peace, prepare for war.”) This idea has resonated with many world leaders, and especially military leaders like Napolean, all the way to our present day. His book shaped the West’s understanding of military engagement and intervention, as well as domestic security. The idea is that in order to ensure peace a nation must have overwhelming military might and be prepared to use that military might, whenever, wherever and however it wishes, so as to prevent any other nation or people from invading/conquering one’s own homeland or even threatening that homeland. This adage sees war as necessary and as an intrinsic good.

Peace is secondary to war in this ideology. Peace, then, is solely understood to be the absence of war, and even in peace, one must be constantly promoting war as a virtuous thing. It instills in the culture a sense of distrust of others, even a distrust of groups within one’s own borders, always on the lookout and presumption that the status quo could be threatened at any moment. As Catholics we see peace and war in a completely different way. The Catholic Catechism (CC), and all of Catholic teaching, seeks to not only promote peace instead of war, but to address the factors that often lead to war: “Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war.” (CC, 2317)

Pope St. John Paul II in his message on the World Day of Peace in 2000 offered this: “No one should be deceived into thinking that the simple absence of war, as de­sirable as it is, is equivalent to lasting peace. There is no true peace without fairness, truth, justice and solidarity. Failure awaits every plan which would separate two indivisible and interdependent rights: the right to peace and the right to an integral development born of solidarity.”

This recognition that war is a failure of peace is something Pope Francis reminded us of when commenting on the war that is today ravaging Syria. Recalling the words of Pope Blessed Paul VI, Pope Francis told the crowd: “War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity. Let the words of Pope Paul VI resound again: ‘No more one against the other, no more, never! … war never again, never again war!’ (Address to the United Nations, 1965). ‘Peace expresses itself only in peace, a peace which is not separate from the demands of justice but which is fostered by personal sacrifice, clemency, mercy and love.’ (World Day of Peace Message, 1975).” We read these words in light of the message of Pope Blessed Paul VI’s now famous quote, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Our primary focus ought not to continually prepare for war but to address the factors that invariably lead to armed conflict among nations, and even within nations so that we can one day collectively declare with the church “war never again, never again war!”

How do we work for and achieve peace and justice? Pope Benedict XVI stated in his message for World Day of Peace in 2012 that: “In order to be true peacemakers, we must educate ourselves in compassion, solidarity, working together, fraternity, in being active within the community and concerned to raise awareness about national and international issues.”

One way to fulfill this responsibility to educate ourselves is to learn the church’s teaching on the subject of peace building and “Just War Theory.” By participating in the “Formation for All” respect life and social justice session for the season of Advent, you can begin your journey of discovery and engagement on building peace. The session is called “Building Peace and Just War Theory” and can be accessed on the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice website at:

There are two different tracts that can used. One for Grades K-6 and the Domestic Church and one for Grades 7-12, Parish Leadership/Committees, Faith Sharing Groups. Schmidt is the director of Respect Life and Social Justice for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.