The Church After John Paul II

“War is never inevitable,” Pope John Paul II said two years ago before the U.S. bombed Iraq. “It is always a defeat for humanity.” When I met John Paul II in 1995, I realized that such anti-war statements were at the heart of his spiritual life, and that he was passionate about peace.
Over eight hundreds members of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement, had gathered in Assisi for a week of meetings. Afterward, a delegation of some one hundred and fifty of us traveled to Rome for an audience with the Pope.
“Movements like Pax Christi are precious to the Church,” he said to us, calling upon Catholics everywhere to work for peace. “They help draw people’s attention to the violence which shatters the harmony between human beings.” He was so taken with our group that he spent several hours walking around the room, meeting each one of us. When I gave him a copy of my book, The God of Peace, he looked at it, then raised his right hand, bringing the tips of his fingers together, and said out loud in his thick accent, “Ah! Peace! John Dear! The God of Peace! God bless you.” It was quite a reaction.
While I mourn for John Paul II, I lament that he did not ordain women, support liberation theology, or defend martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero. But I recognize that he was clearly against war, poverty and nuclear weapons. This conviction, I think, holds the key to the future of the church.
Given the dramatic shortage of priests that will hit the Church in the next two decades, change is inevitable. Sooner or later, whether in ten years or one hundred, the Church will ordain women, allow clergy to marry, permit local communities to elect bishops, welcome gays and lesbians and respect other religions. The tide of history cannot be stopped. The changes will help the Church become healthier, more faithful, and more loving.
But while these changes are crucial, even deeper changes are needed. The future of the church, I submit, depends on the Catholic community’s full embrace of the Gospel of peace, renunciation of the just war theory and renewed adherence to active nonviolence in the tradition of the early Christian martyrs.
Someday, the Church will move from its focus on power, domination, and control to forgiveness, compassion and equality, so that it is not so much Pope-centered, or Vatican-centered, as Jesus-centered, peace-centered. It will act as a grassroots, decentralized movement of creative nonviolence empowering everyone to serve God’s reign of peace and justice, and resist the forces of war and injustice. In the future, the college of Cardinals will be made up of people like Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Gumbleton, Roy Bourgeois–and Helen Prejean, Joan Chittister and Kathy Kelly.
The Church is supposed to be the peacemaking community of followers of the nonviolent Jesus. Its task is to walk in his footsteps, to do his work, to implement his teachings, and to take up his cross in the struggle for justice. Those Gospel teachings are clear: love your neighbor, be as compassionate as God, serve the poor, hunger and thirst for justice, forgive seventy times seven times, put down the sword, take up the cross in the struggle for justice, become peacemakers and love your enemies. This is the work of every Catholic, and the institutional Church exists to serve us on this journey of discipleship to the nonviolent Jesus. It is supposed to help us shake off our fear, announce God’s reign, take up the cross, and lay down our lives for suffering humanity. The Pope is supposed to model the peacemaking life, even by entering war zones and demanding peace.
As John Paul II understood, the question of war is the crux of the matter. Can Catholics support war and still follow the nonviolent Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies? I believe we cannot serve both the false gods of war and the living God of peace. War is the ultimate sin. We are called to love our enemies, not kill them. Just as John Paul II vigorously denounced war, especially the Bush Administration’s slaughter of the people of Iraq, Catholics everywhere must renounce war and add their voice to the global peace movement.
Everyone has to undergo this deep spiritual conversion from violence to nonviolence. We can no longer just spend one hour a week at church, and then go about our business in a world with thirty-five wars where 40,000 people die daily from hunger while the nuclear arsenal grows every day. We have to engage in public work for justice and peace for the rest of our lives. We cannot remain passive or silent or leave these big issues to the Pope. Each one of us has to become like John Paul II. As a people, we have to reject the culture of war, practice the nonviolence of Jesus, and join the struggle for a new culture of peace.
I think this is the hope of the Church, indeed, the hope of the nonviolent Jesus for the Church. Just as Pope John Paul II apologized for the crusades, the Inquisition and Catholic support of Nazi genocide, one day in the future, the Catholic Church will apologize for its support of war, renounce the just war theory, and return to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence as the blueprint for Christian living.
On that new day, Catholics will move closer to our Mennonite and Quaker sisters and brothers. We will no longer bless war, pay for war, or fight in war. We will understand nonviolence as the key to the Gospel and our own Christian faith. We will refuse to make nuclear weapons, execute people on death row, or practice interpersonal violence. We will feed the starving, give away free medicine to those with HIV and AIDS in Africa, and end poverty. Every Catholic will be part of a local, grassroots base community of Gospel nonviolence, to pray, study and act together for justice and peace. We will resist the structures of war and corporate greed through the methods of active nonviolence until war, poverty, hunger and nuclear weapons are abolished.
This transformation will not be easy. It will require that age-old Gospel business of the cross, our participation in the paschal mystery. As the Gospel instructs, we will pursue God’s reign of peace, resist systemic violence, and prefer to suffer violence rather than retaliate with further violence. Through our suffering love, we too will become saints, prophets and champions of justice and peace.
On this journey into the future, we all have to become like Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker and shelter the poor and defend the marginalized. We all have to become like Sister Helen Prejean and work to abolish the cruel and inhuman punishment of the death penalty. We all have to become like Sister Joan Chittister and advocate for women’s rights. We all have to become like Kathy Kelly and defend our sisters and brothers in Iraq and Palestine. We all have to become like Bono and campaign to cancel the third world debt and ship massive quantities of free drugs to Africans with AIDS/HIV. We all have to become like Roy Bourgeois and work to close the SOA and all U.S. terrorist training camps. We all have to become like Daniel and Philip Berrigan and speak out against war and nuclear weapons, even to the point of arrest and imprisonment.
Instead of a grim future, I see a bright future where the global church wakes up to the wisdom of Gospel nonviolence. Like those daring, early Christian martyrs, everyone will give their life as part of the Church’s mission of transforming nonviolence. The Church will lead the way to a new world without war, injustice, hunger or nuclear weapons. Not only will we share in the cross of Jesus, we will also share the new life of his resurrection, and become the light of the world. And like that early Church, we will stop the empire’s wars and lead one another into the spiritual depths of peace.