One hundred years ago this week began what is perhaps the greatest calamity in mankind’s history. They called it the “Great War” and later a “World War.” Before it was over, more than 16 million people would be slain and another 20 million wounded. Moreover, the stage was set for an even greater conflagration, followed by years of proxy wars.
Among the primary causes of World War I were distrust among peoples and lingering resentments from past conflicts. With bewildering swiftness, nation after nation mobilized their militaries and then declared war on one another. Crowds in the street cheered and men eagerly hurried to enlist so they could join in.
After the American Civil War, General William T. Sherman famously remarked that there are some “who look on war as all glory, but it is all hell.”
Pope Benedict XV – who was elected when Pope Pius X died a few weeks after the outbreak of war – would dedicate his pontificate to restoring peace. In his first encyclical, he confirms Sherman’s assessment of war – “There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine, as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? Who would recognize brothers, whose Father is in Heaven?” Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum.
The long teaching of the Church is that under certain conditions, war might be justified. Precisely because of the value of human life, we have a solemn duty to protect life when it is threatened. A war of aggression is intrinsically immoral, but those who are attacked unjustly have a right of legitimate defense, which might involve deadly force against other combatants, but never against innocent civilian populations (CCC 2307-17).
Even if justifiable, war in every case is a tragedy. Because of the evils and injustices that all war brings with it, we must do everything reasonably possible to avoid it. Thus, when Pope Paul VI became the first pontiff to address the United Nations in 1965, he emphatically pleaded, “Never one against the other, never, never again. . . . No more war, war never again. It is peace, peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all mankind.”
The Church recognizes that peace is not merely the absence of conflict; rather, it is the tranquility of order and justice according to God’s eternal law of love and truth (Gaudium et Spes, 78). With his embrace of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and his hosting of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to pray for peace at Pentecost, Pope Francis shows the way toward genuine and lasting peace – reconciliation and fraternity.
This is not a naïve dream of our Holy Father. America’s own national experience demonstrates that it is the key to peace. The principle of “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” as President Lincoln said toward the end of the Civil War – which finds its roots in Jesus’ remarkable injunction to forgive one another and love our enemy – has led the United States time and again to make friends of enemies. We are friends with Great Britain, Spain, Germany, Japan and Italy. We have welcomed the Vietnamese and Iraqi people to our shores.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Our efforts toward peace are grounded in the knowledge that we are one human family, that God is Father of all. Jesus sets before us a world of those who hunger and thirst for holiness, justice, mercy, righteousness and compassion for our sisters and brothers. To the extent that each of us participates in that effort there will be just a little bit more light, harmony and love in the world. There will be genuine peace.