Blessed are the Peacemakers Reflections on Two Anniversaries, August 4, 2003

Year Published
  • 2015
  • English

Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

August 4, 2003

This week marks the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first and only use of nuclear weapons in war. Today, we are still confronting the grave moral issues raised by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the subsequent development of nuclear arsenals, and the tragic history of war and violence of which they are a part. Our society is still recovering from and seeking to respond to terrorist attacks and threats. Our nation is engaged in continuing military conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States and the world are urgently seeking to address effectively North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

This is a time to recall, reflect and act upon Catholic teaching on the ethical dimensions of war and peace, nuclear arms and terror. As Catholics, we have two landmark documents to draw upon in this task. Forty years ago, Blessed Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, offered a fundamental framework for building a just peace. Twenty years ago, our Bishops' Conference, in The Challenge of Peace, offered criteria for applying that teaching to our own situation, particularly U.S.nuclear policy.

Within the Catholic community, few documents of our conference have generated as much serious reflection and action – and some controversy – in this country and around the world as the peace pastoral. Within the wider community, the pastoral is still considered by many to be a seminal work on the ethics of nuclear weapons that contributed to reviving public debate on the morality of war that continues to this day.

Pacem in Terris was an even more sweeping document on war and peace. Though written at a time when the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, Pacem in Terris did not focus on the ethics of nuclear weapons. Rather, it laid out a moral vision of a just and peaceful political order at both the national and international levels. Blessed Pope John XXIII projected a vision that moved beyond the existing Cold War disorder to a political order in service to the common good based on respect for the rights and duties of every person as well as every state, and called for an active solidarity among people and nations. More than three decades of papal messages for the World Day of Peace have elaborated in great detail on the vision of peace described in Pacem in Terris.

These documents were written in a very different time from ours, but both retain a power and wisdom for us today. When they were written, their vision of a world freed from the threat of global annihilation and the Cold War seemed utopian to many. Today, the terror of global nuclear war seems a distant memory, yet we are still gripped by terror – the possible use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorist groups or aggressive regimes. The risk of global annihilation may seem remote, but still excessive nuclear arsenals, their continued spread, and proposals to further develop and use them underscore the continuing need for much deeper cuts in nuclear weapons and ultimately a global nuclear ban.

Cold War structures of sin may be gone, but we still must face the bold challenge posed by Blessed Pope John XXIII of building an international order based on the four pillars of truth, justice, solidarity and liberty. Communism and apartheid have collapsed, some dictatorial and authoritarian regimes have given way to freedom and democracy, and civil wars in several countries have ended. Nevertheless, global terrorist networks have demonstrated a capacity to inflict unimaginable horror, our nation is embroiled in conflict and nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the chaos of failed states and fratricidal conflicts continue to take a terrible toll. We are increasingly interconnected through the process of globalization, yet we must still confront the moral scandal of a world divided between zones of prosperity and stability and zones of deprivation and conflict.

We reflect on the continuing challenges posed by these historic documents in the face of new realities. How we define the meaning and legacy of September 11th will determine in significant ways the role that our nation plays in shaping a more just and peaceful world. The following questions are among those on which we and others within the Catholic community could reflect as we mark this anniversary and in the days ahead.

  • How can we pursue the "peace on earth," based on "truth, justice, solidarity and liberty" as envisioned by Blessed Pope John XXIII, in a world marked by deep divisions, systemic injustice and violence, and underdeveloped international institutions?
  • How can we do more to develop the theology, spirituality and practice of peace called for in The Challenge of Peace?
  • How can we reject the profane use of religion to justify violence and terrorism and instead,working with other churches and religions, reinforce the role of faith as a force for liberation and peace around the world?
  • What more can be done to develop the tools of nonviolent conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peace building so that we can fulfill our obligation as citizens and as a nation to work for the avoidance of war?
  • Will our nation pursue unilateral approaches to a troubled and sometimes threatening world, or will it use its unique strength and influence to engage constructively with other nations in building up the United Nations and other elements of a strong international order envisioned in Pacem in Terris?
  • How can nations act together to protect the lives of the innocent, stop genocide and curb fundamental human rights abuses?
  • How will the world respond to global terrorist networks with the intent and capacity to attack innocent people and unleash massive destruction?
  • Will not new doctrines of preventive use of military force undermine serious efforts to limit the occasions when force will be necessary and justified?
  • How can we respond both to threats of terror and the roots of terror – denial of human rights and dignity, desperate poverty, hopelessness and hatred?
  • How can we pursue genuine nuclear disarmament, not merely as an ideal but as a moral imperative and a policy goal?

The Challenge of Peace and Pacem in Terris call on us to make peacemaking a permanent commitment, an integral part of our Christian witness. This moment and these anniversaries provide an occasion to recover, renew and recommit to the challenge of peace, for much work remains to be done. This is a time, not for new statements, but for new reflection, action, advocacy and urgency in the cause of peacemaking.

For our part, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will continue to address this challenge in a number of specific ways in the months ahead. We will set aside time at our November 2003 General Meeting for presentations on current issues of war and peace, and we will participate in academic and diocesan conferences related to the anniversaries. We will continue and intensify our advocacy for nuclear disarmament. We will also continue and intensify our work on other pressing issues of war and peace, including opposing notions of preventive war, supporting the long-term task of building a just peace in Afghanistan and Iraq, and working for peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land, the Great Lakes region of Africa, Liberia, Sudan and other areas of conflict around the world.

We invite dioceses, parishes, schools and universities, and other Catholic institutions and organizations to consider how they might use this moment and these anniversaries to raise up the essential vocation of peacemaking. We invite Catholic policymakers, those in the military services, scientists, academics,advocates and others who work directly on issues of war and peace to deepen their discernment of ways they can fulfill their call to be peacemakers. We invite all Catholics to reflect on ways they can be"sentinels of peace" through their work and family, their parishes, civic associations, and the exercise of their responsibilities as citizens.

The risen Jesus gave peace as his first gift to his followers. As disciples of Christ, we seek to make the peace which Jesus gives us visible in our lives and in our world. In doing so, we become peacemakers and may deserve to be called "children of God."

To get a copy of "Pacem In Terris: Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty", April 11, 1963, go to: - 103k - 2008-04-10

For other Conference documents on War and Peace, go to

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