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On the Word "Violence" Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 17 May 2011
 
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L'Osservatore Romano for 30 March had this headline: “Let the Weapons Be Silenced in Libya and Let Dialogue Begin.” The implication was that “dialogue” can always take the place of arms. The status quo is better than change. The assumption is that the recourse to arms is not calculated or rational in its own way. Human experience often tells us that before any meaningful discussion takes place arms or violence have to be met with arms or violence. It is an odd reading of human nature and history to imply that all we have to do is lay down arms and “dialogue.” Then, all will be well.  Enemies exist for whom “dialogue” is not a significant category except as an aid to gain their ends without arms.

In a Good Friday interview on Italian Television, Benedict XVI responded to the question of a Muslim woman: “Violence never comes from God, never helps bring anything good, but is a destructive means and not the path to escape difficulties. He (Christ) is thus a strong voice against every type of violence” (ORE, April 27). The papal offices are filled with pleas for peacemakers and non-violence, for dialogues of every sort.

Almost never do we hear discussed the issue of just war or legitimate, indeed obligatory, defense measures. The Holy Father speaks regularly to Italian and Vatican police, to military chaplains, and of course to diplomats. In his Regensburg Address, Benedict did indicate that areas of discussion and dialogue would have to be protected from violence for them to function. This almost unequivocal condemnation of “violence,” however, seems curious to me. It lacks precision. A reasonable case can be made for the need and use of arms that is not simply “violence” in the pejorative sense.  

In thinking about this recent turn in ecclesiastical discourse, which often sounds like pacifism, I recalled the discussion of Yves Simon in which he carefully distinguished between violence and coercion. In his famous Philosophy of Democratic Government, Simon pointed out that the term “violence” is not always simply negative. Just and unjust uses of violence are to be distinguished. “Violence,’ Simon writes, “is sometimes used as a synonym of ‘coercion.’ In this sense the arrest of a burglar by a police officer is an act of violence. Anybody can see that this is loose language, to be prohibited whenever scientific rigor is needed. Not the policeman, but the burglar, is violent.”

Violence and coercion are thus distinguished. Coercion is the use of adequate force according to man-made law, as an application of natural law. Police officers and soldiers are established to bring criminals to justice, to prevent “violence” that is not rooted in justice. This fact does not deny that occasions can occur when private citizens have to defend themselves against criminals in lieu of the immediate aid of law. Much of the “violence” of the present drug “trade” falls into this area. Nor does it mean that the police or military may not act contrary to their own law. But it does mean that the sanctioned use of force should not be called “violence” as if it has no responsible reason or cause.

The underestimation of the ruthlessness of modern criminals or ideologues is a perennial temptation of the religious mind. We see today that many fellow Christians are being killed or persecuted because the local constabulary refuses or is unable to protect them. We also see that many men think that the use of such violence to kill infidels is legitimized by their religion. We are left sputtering to ourselves. We speak of religious freedom to those whose definition of religious freedom is that everyone should be Muslim. We appeal to a standard that is not recognized except, as we like to say, by universal law.

We are often left to accept such killings. They happen far away. We acknowledge that we cannot or will not do anything to prevent them.  In any case, we need a more precise way to distinguish between efforts to prevent unjust violence and the violence itself. They do not fall within the same moral genus. To speak as though they do, it strikes me, leads to a political helplessness that makes matters worse.


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.
 
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Comments (18)Add Comment
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written by Aeneas, May 17, 2011
A well made point Father. We should try and distinguish between the two. Pacifism was never a good thing, and it always leaves one defenseless. But this makes article makes it seem like B16 leans towards a pacifistic approach to things, is that the case?
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written by Barry Brummet, May 17, 2011
Seeing that Christians are under attack all over the world, whether by judicial activism in formerly Christian countries, or Muslims in the East, I yearn for the establishment of an international force of Christians to come to their rescue- a new Crusade, if you will, and without apologies. Your point about the difference between coercion and violence is well taken, and both are being used against Christians by their enemies. But for more aggressive Christianity to succeed it would also be necessary to cultivate the manly virtues again among the youth.
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 17, 2011
Bravo Fr. Schall.

While I cling closely to Benedict, I don't think the Good Friday quote, if not out of context, is a competent treatment of "violence." I read Fr. S as distinguishing the legitimate use of (deadly) force, or forceful "coercion," from "violence," which would thus be defined as the illegitimate use of (deadly) force.

The need for the distinction shows just how far Catholic rhetoric has drifted into the orbit of pacifism.

As a former military man, such a formulation (violence never comes from God nor brings anything good) does great injustice to virtuous Christian men who love Christ and have been willing to suffer the burden of war to defend against evil.

As to the Gospel - I would like to see the explanation of exactly what Jesus was doing when he drove the sellers out of the Temple with a whip.

But as to revelation, the statement "violence never comes from God
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written by Ars Artium, May 17, 2011
A defender of just war theory at a Vermont college conference tells this story. Just when he was beginning to realize that his position was shared by no one else present, a man in the audience rose to speak. He introduced himself as a scholar whose field of study is music and then went on to say that the most beautiful music he had ever heard was the sound of American tanks approaching the concentration camp where he was being held a prisoner.
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 17, 2011
I would also add, per Barry Brummet, that the growing claim of pacificm in Church institutions is quite ominous for those who hope for some inkling of justice and mercy on earth. In a world that worships violence we had better hope and pray that armies are lead by just men. Pacifists should contemplate that the largest faction of officers in the U.S. military are and have been Catholic men, who operate to restrain armies under the laws of war, and offer the possibility of mercy and justice even in the horror of war. Pacifists should contemplate how armies behave when they don't have Catholics prevailing in number in the officer corps, for example the German and Japanese armies in WW2. Woe be the United States if the U.S. military ever falls out of the moral sway of Catholic officers.
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written by Brian English, May 17, 2011
In addition to outright pacifism, there has also been a widespread adoption of what C. S. Lewis called "semi-pacifism." This view grudgingly admits that fighting is sometimes necessary, but insists that it be treated as something to be ashamed of. Lewis thought this did a real disservice to Christians in the military.
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 17, 2011
To Aeneas re: Pope B16, and Just War, see the artcle "Ratzinger on War and Violence" (link on this page in the left hand column) and specifically the parts below extracted here. As always, with B16, an "ecclesial man," he can't be "proof-texted." It's context, context, context...

The extract:

Q: Is there any such thing as a “just war”?

Cardinal Ratzinger: This is a major issue of concern. In the preparation of the Catechism, there were two problems: the death penalty and just war theory were the most debated. The debate has taken on new urgency given the response of the Americans. Or, another example: Poland, which defended itself against Hitler.

I’d say that we cannot ignore, in the great Christian tradition and in a world marked by sin, any evil aggression that threatens to destroy not only many values, many people, but the image of humanity itself.

In this case, defending oneself and others is a duty. Let’s say for example that a father who sees his family attacked is duty-bound to defend them in every way possible – even if that means using proportional violence.

Thus, the just war problem is defined according to these parameters: ....
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written by Yezhov, May 17, 2011
I would think that violence is pretty much like anything else. Depends on how it's used. Dynamite is violent. We use it to good effect in mining and excavation.
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written by Achilles, May 17, 2011
Another excellent article from Father Schall! And one with far reaching implications. The new global value of egalitarianism, which undergirds the self esteem building movement, has forced moral relativists and other non thinking bipeds to truncat Aristotle’s criteria for moral acts- whose 3 criteria are 1- the act itself, 2 the intention, and 3 the context. Psuedo-man only needs to meet one criteria and which way it sways depends on his personal whim. Thanks Father for bringing reality back into focus.
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written by Frank Egan, May 17, 2011
Neuhaus is gone, Buckley is gone, McInerny is gone,
and Dulles too, but thank goodness their wisdom lives on
in men like Schall and Arkes.
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written by Aeneas, May 17, 2011
Thank you Chris in Maryland for clearing that up for me.

And may I just say, great comments all!

"I yearn for the establishment of an international force of Christians to come to their rescue- a new Crusade, if you will, and without apologies" I totally agree with you Barry.
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written by Howard Kainz, May 17, 2011
Aeneas writes: "I yearn for the establishment of an international force of Christians to come to their rescue- a new Crusade, if you will, and without apologies"
But what leader would call for the Crusade? Popes don't do that, any more. And what would the Crusaders do this time? Occupy Muslim lands and force the recalcitrant ones to tolerate "unbelievers." Sounds like the makings of World War III, which hopefully we can avoid.
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written by senex, May 18, 2011
What Fr. Schall so often provokes is thought, and he has done it here. Since at least the time of Paul VI and his coterie of détente advisers, make peace at any price has been prevalent in Rome. We have forgotten the wisdom of Augustine and his Tranquilitas Ordinis as a guiding spirit for use of force/violence. And have we forgotten the papal spirit that preached the Crusades? Today we would never hear that preaching, because pusillanimous pacificism rejects truth, ‘that which is’.
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written by stosh, May 18, 2011
Fr. Schall often writes on this topic. My favorite is his line that we need to contemplate whether more harm is done by inaction than action.
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written by Aeneas, May 19, 2011
To Howard Kainz: That was not my quote that you quoted, it was Barry Brummet's. I was merely saying that I agreed with him. Which I still do. As to what those crusaders would do, and how they would do it, I don't know, but its a nice thought IMHO.
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written by Leonard, May 19, 2011
Here we have Catholic Priest telling us about just war. Still, I have to ask, what did Jesus say on the topic of war and violence. What would he do if held up or attacked? Would he fight back? Would he protect his friends? Of course it was easy for him, he was god and better than me.
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written by Brian A. Cook, May 20, 2011
Father Schall, what about "blessed are the peacemakers"? Aren't we supposed to make efforts at peace?

"...moral relativists and other non thinking bipeds..." Why do you use that phrase, Achilles?

Howard Kainz has it exactly right.
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written by Achilles, May 20, 2011
Brian, I refer to the independent minded herd, the university indoctrinated who has mistaken ideology for truth. The educational system has run amuck so badly that most of its alumni are unable to think beyond ideological lines and are not even aware of it, therefore non thinking bipeds. Have you taken offense to the idea? Or are you thinking that all of us bipeds have exhibited thinking beyond our appetites and ideology? Moral relativism is nonsense and impossible to propigate if one has integrated reality into one's worldview.
As to the peacemakers, please read what St. Augustine says about in his sermons on the beatitudes, it will not line up with what we learned at the U. good luck to you, Achilles

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