by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

The convictions of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (CNI) in a few short years have gained acceptance throughout the Catholic world and beyond. Over the next several weeks this column will concentrate on what the CNI is promoting: the growing conviction among scholars, practitioners of peace and particularly among victims of violence that nonviolence must be the first response to violent situations at ever level of human life.

Some important preliminary considerations:

First, nonviolence should not be confused with pacifism as many people understand that word today. The dictionary offers synonyms for it in today’s parlance: placate, mollify, appease, quiet. Nonviolence is active and preemptive.

Second, the CNI holds that nonviolence must be the starting point in conflicts at every level — not immediate acceptance that violence is a required and urgent response. (The essay here last week asked what would creative and realistic nonviolent responses — instead of two wars — have accomplished following the 9/11 atrocities.)  

Third, violence presents itself in myriad ways, not only in cases of actual physical harm.

The first and most glaring example of violence in our times is the sins against “Our Common Home” as Pope Francis reverently describes our planet Earth. His catalogue of violences against Mother Earth is lengthy. We, who strive for a world of justice, peace and the integrity of creation, know it well. Nevertheless, the list and the generally token responses to each example will be good for us to consider once again.

  • Environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.
  • Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain.
  • Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market.
  • Our politics are subject to technology and economic interests.
  • The alliance between the economy and technology sidelines anything unrelated to its immediate interests.
  • Global summits on the environment have thus far failed.
  • Genuine attempts by groups within society to introduce change produce such fear in privileged circles that they are immediately viewed as “a nuisance based on romantic illusions or obstacles to be circumvented.” (Laudato Si’ #54)
  • The most one can expect are superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy, and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment.
  • People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption.
  • Distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is.

The common denominator in these analyses is that each one reveals causes or results of violence in direct or indirect ways. This is precisely the major premise set forth by the Catholic Nonviolent Initiative. It is a question of seeing what we are looking at.

What is most important in these listings is what the pope calls “weak responses”. They are explicit and implicit here. And they call for an examination of conscience and ongoing conversion on personal, political and societal levels. Where are we, for example, in our relationship with our own selves? Is there violence in how we treat our bodies, emotions, souls? How violent at times are our family relations? Neighborhood relations? Were we merely bystanders when our own United States government removed its support for the Paris Climate Accord? Or the separation of immigrant families on our southern borders? Do we take notice of corporate politics and practices before we patronize any of them? Above all, are we joining with organizations that are seeking to bring a nonviolent ethic into our public and global realities?

The following encounter speaks in accessible terms about these huge questions and challenges. An indigenous Bolivian woman asked a missionary brother of mine as he prepared for furlough in the United States: “Father, would you find out if it could possibly be true that people in your country actually bathe themselves in potable water?”


Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

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