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As a young man, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, experienced directly the horrors of the Second World War—“a just war,” he says, “if ever in history there was such a thing.”
But personal experience and keen observation of the world situation since that war’s end more than 60 years ago have taught this pope that war is never the best way to ensure peace.
“Only reconciliation can create peace,” he says. “It is not violence that can resolve situations, but rather justice.”
If we want peace, the late Pope Paul VI said, we should work for justice. But what is justice? And how can we actively work for it—especially in areas of the world that are marked by hatred, violence and what the Holy Father calls the “useless slaughter” of war?
Justice is one of the pillars of right living, or moral conduct, for individuals and for societies. Justice ensures that everyone is treated fairly according to his or her rights and dignity as human persons. Justice is guaranteed by the rule of law. It requires obedience to rightful authority and a genuine reverence for the “higher authority” represented by the divine law planted in the hearts of all human beings.
Without justice, human beings either live in a state of anarchy or they suffer from repression and inequity. An unjust society places power or greed ahead of human dignity and welfare. It foments tyranny and dictatorship. Societies that are not governed by the rule of law breed hopelessness and despair. They are the spawning grounds of poverty, terrorism and organized crime.
If we want peace, which includes security, prosperity and a reasonably happy life for all, we should work for justice. But what does this mean for us, practically speaking? What can ordinary citizens do to ensure the building of a just and peaceful society?
Pope Benedict suggests three fundamental things that every one of us should pray for, and work to accomplish, in local, state, national and international affairs.
First, we should work to guarantee the “unconditional character” of human dignity and human rights. No individual or society has the right to deprive anyone of his or her freedom as a child of God and a full, rightful member of the human community. This principle applies to all unconditionally, but it is especially appropriate for those who are on the margins of society—the poor, the unwanted and the most vulnerable members of the human family (including the unborn and the aged or infirm).
Second, we should work to promote and defend the importance of marriage and family life as the basic unit of society, and as an absolutely unique and irreplaceable foundation for the transmission of life and the formation of human persons. Without the family, there can be no just social order. Without the love and commitment that are nurtured in authentic marriage and family life, there can be no lasting sense of social responsibility, no true freedom or genuine peace.
Finally, the Holy Father urges that we pray for, and work to accomplish, a reverence for what is sacred in our own tradition and in all the cultures of the world. There is no such thing as a “holy” war, but we know too well that war often involves fundamental conflicts among the religious images and concepts of people who are intolerant of others’ religious beliefs.
If we want peace, we must work for a better, more authentic understanding of the mystery of God and of the ways in which God is understood, worshipped and obeyed among nations and peoples in all regions of the world community.
“The peace of Christ surpasses the boundaries of Christianity,” the pope says, “and is valid for all, both near and far.”
If we want to end the useless slaughter of war, we must work for justice—here at home and throughout the world. Only justice can create and sustain peace in our individual lives and in the world at large.
Let’s do whatever we can to preserve and defend human dignity, to safeguard family life, and to offer reverence and respect for the mystery of God “both near and far.”