Catholic Strategic Peacebuilding: The Unique Role of the Laity Part 1

Catholic Strategic Peacebuilding: The Unique Role of the Laity Part 1

To understand the growing role of the Catholic Church in promoting peace, we must begin by defining strategic peacebuilding. Strategic Peacebuilding (SPB) is a comprehensive approach to conflict transformation that analyzes and interfaces with the peace process before, during and after violence. “It seeks to prevent, engage, reduce, transform and help communities move beyond violence in all forms, including structural.”[1] SPB examines various levels of interaction — horizontal and vertical — between the multiple actors and factors in a conflict situation. Comprehensive analysis is used to provide a framework for systemic social change that both accounts for the violence and ultimately leads to a sustainable peace. According to John Paul Lederach, the Roman Catholic Church is well placed to make a significant contribution at all levels of society to SPB — before, during and after the violence.[2]

Already, the Catholic Church has carved out a niche in the world of SPB through its international development agencies (e.g., Catholic Relief Services[3]), its Track Two diplomacy[4] successes (e.g., the San Egidio community[5]) and the engagement of its hierarchical leaders (bishops and priests[6]) in conflict zones around the world. Some of the peacebuilding roles the Church has played include: facilitating peace agreements, providing safe spaces for conversation between contending parties, outreach to rebel groups and direct work with the victims of war.[7] Still, the potential positive impact of the Catholic Church in SPB remains largely untapped because the Church leadership has not articulated a theological framework for the role of the Catholic laity[8] as peacemakers. The Catholic laity should operate as agents of peace within their families[9] and in their local parishes. However, they must be empowered to become Catholic peacebuilders in the larger society through their professional and civic engagements.

A Ubiquitous Presence[10]

The Roman Catholic Church includes over 1.2 billion members worldwide. Although Catholic membership is concentrated mostly in the Americas (524 million) and Europe (286 million), adherents can be found in Africa (135 million), Asia (120 million), Oceania (8 million) and the Middle East (3 million).[11] In some war-torn Catholic countries, such as Colombia and the Philippines, Catholicism pervades every segment of society: political leaders, the intelligentsia, the judicial sector, the security forces, the military, journalists, rebel soldiers and victims of the conflict. From the grassroots of society, through middle management levels and onto the political, cultural and economic elites, the Church enjoys a “ubiquitous presence” and unprecedented relational access to all societal segments in many traditionally Catholic countries around the world.[12]

Religion and Violence

While many see religion as a source of conflict and division, the truth is that religion plays a broad range of roles in matters of war and peace.[13] All religions, particularly ones that enjoy a cultural dominance, are capable of marshalling substantial resources for peace by employing their symbols and rituals, invoking their sacred texts and using their institutions to promote a vision for peace. It must be acknowledged though, that religions can, and often are, co-opted into the service of violence. The challenge at hand is to engage the theological, institutional and cultural power of the Catholic Church to provide a compelling peace narrative to stand against violent aggression. More importantly, the massive resources of the Church must be employed to produce lay agents of peace through lifelong education and formation in peacemaking. In other words, the task is to turn the Catholic Church into a “school of peacemaking” for its 1.2 billion members.

This school would make explicit the many pieces of the tradition and the teachings of the Church that relate to peacebuilding. It would include conflict resolution training for children, teens and adults throughout the parish community. All of the education, formation and sacramental initiation efforts would intentionally make the connections to peacemaking whenever appropriate, pointing out the implications for the laity as to how they could embody these teachings in the world today. Finally, special advanced training would be included in seminary training, through diocesan workshops and on the parish level for pastoral leaders — both ordained and lay. In other words, peacebuilding would become constitutive of every aspect of the ministries of teaching and preaching the gospel as well as all efforts in discipling people at the parish level.

Does SPB Fit Into The Mission of the Church?

The central mission and duty of the Church is to “proclaim the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). How does this fit with strategic peacebuilding? Where can the Catholic Church naturally interface with the imperatives and trajectories of SPB without compromising its own essential identity as a spiritual communion?

The first area of compatibility is in the pre-conflict stage of SPB. Before the outbreak of violence, SPB works to insure that all the structures, systems, institutions and elements of culture work to provide constructive, nonviolent pathways for resolving conflicts and addressing societal injustices. The Church locates itself very naturally in this sector, with its educational institutions, its social justice campaigns and its parish- based moral formation programs that equip the laity to see the world through the perspective of “gospel thinking”.

Second, in the midst of the violence, SPB engages the contending actors through outreach, negotiations, mediations and acknowledgement of grievances. This traditional segment of conflict resolution requires the intentional building and transforming of relationships so that after the official peace accords are signed, people can move forward to create a sustainable peace. Some members of the Catholic hierarchy in Latin America, Africa and Asia have been pulled into the role of conflict mediation because other local institutions have collapsed and key players in the war are Catholics. Bishops and priests are respected and trusted by actors and carry a moral authority.[14] Oftentimes, these Catholic clerics have expressed a sense of inadequacy in these situations, having never being trained in peace work.[15] However, out of a sense of pastoral obligation to care for their flock — which often includes both the perpetrators and the victims of the violence — some bishops and priests step into the fray, promoting the peace and justice of Christ found in the scriptures and Catholic teachings.

Finally, SPB addresses the devastation left in the wake of the conflict. Through the practices of human rights advocacy, restorative justice, reconciliation and community healing, SPB recognizes that peace agreements are just the first step in creating a sustainable peace. The wounds of political violence must be addressed.[16] Likewise, just structures must be put in place to insure that the problems that caused the war do not go unaddressed. This may require prosecuting those who have violated the human rights of others. It could also include reforming the judicial and security sectors, a thorough overhaul of the political structures and an effort to reintegrate those who either fought in the war or lost their property through involuntary displacement. Here again, the Church provides some natural points of convergence through its Catholic Social Doctrine,[17] its teaching on the deleterious effects of sin as well as its sacramental ministries of reconciliation, communion, healing.

Traditional Catholic teaching acknowledges the presence and power of sin, evil and violence within humanity (i.e. Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, the crucifixion of Jesus, the persecution of the early Church, and the doctrine of original sin). The practice of repentance through the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) provides a spiritual source of restorative justice and healing for broken communities. Likewise, the Eucharist presents a “fundamental understanding of encounter and reconciliation with God and the community, represented in the form of the body, the community gathered.”[18]

In these ways, the Catholic Church is a logical civil society partner in SPB efforts. The Church provides a theological narrative that can substantially influence how people frame the conflict and the efforts to build peace. Its institutional reach cuts both horizontally and vertically to all sectors of societies.[19] And the Church has access to diverse portions of the population in ways that academics, politicians or peacebuilders do not normally have.[20] Research has shown that the involvement of civil society in peace efforts have improved the likelihood of success.[21]The Church can certainly serve in this role going forward. In order to do this though, the leadership will have to intentionally seek ways to provide the laity with a theological justification, a formal commissioning and systematic formation in its mission of peacebuilding.

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By David O’Brien


[1] Schirch, Lisa. 2004. The Little Book of Strategic Peacebuilding Intercourse, PA: Good Books. p. 9.

[2] Lederach, John Paul, “The Long Journey Back to Humanity: Catholic Peacebuilding with Armed Actors”, pp. 50-51, found in Schreiter, Robert J., R. S. Appleby, and Gerard F. Powers. 2010. Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

[3] For examples of CRS’s involvement in strategic peacebuilding, see: “Catholic Relief Services: Catholic Peacebuilding in Practice”, pp. 125-154, found in Schreiter, Robert J., R. S. Appleby, and Gerard F. Powers. 2010. Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books., Extractives and Equity, edited by Tom Bamat, Aaron Chassy and Rees Warne, Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore, Md, p. 1-122. 2011. and Gary, Ian and Lynn, Terry. Bottom of the Barrel: Africa’s Oil Boom and the Poor. Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore, Md, p. 1-110. 2003.

[4] Track Two Diplomacy is a term used to describe diplomatic peace mediation efforts that are done by non-governmental actors. Traditional diplomacy done by heads of state or foreign diplomats has been historically called Track One Diplomacy.

[5] Smock, David R. 1998. Private Peacemaking: USIP-Assisted Peacemaking Projects of Nonprofit Organizations Washington, DC 1550 M St., NW, Washington 20005: U.S. Institute of Peace.

[6] Lederach, “The Long Journey Back to Humanity”, pp. 23-55.

[7] Schreiter, Robert J., R. S. Appleby, and Gerard F. Powers. 2010. Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

[8] In the Catholic community, the laity are considered all the baptized members of the community who have not been ordained. This includes religious brothers and sisters, monks and nuns such as the Franciscans, Jesuits, Sisters of Mercy or Poor Clares. However, most Catholics do not include the religious who have taken solemn vows to be on the same level as the regular lay people. For the purposes of this article, the term “laity” refers only to those who are not ordained or living a vowed religious life.

[9] See the forward thinking work of James B. and Kathleen McGinnis. 1990. Parenting for Peace and Justice: Ten Years Later Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, “Peacemaking in the Family.” Momentum 23 (4): pp. 66-68.

[10] A description for the Catholic Church used by Lederach, “The Long Journey Back to Humanity”, p. 50.

[11] Figures can be found at:

[12] Lederach, “The Long Journey Back to Humanity”, pp. 50-51.

[13] See the seminal work of Scott Appleby on this topic in: Appleby, R. S. 2000. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

[14] Lecture by John Ashworth, Kroc-Catholic Relief Services Fellow from South Sudan presented at the Africa Faith and Justice Network 30thAnniversary Conference — Justice for Africa: Justice for the World at the University of Notre Dame, March 1-3, 2013. Also see Lederach, “The Long Journey Back to Humanity”.

[15] Lederach, “The Long Journey Back to Humanity”, pp. 32-43.

[16] For a treatment of the wounds of political injustice and the practices available for addressing them, see Philpott, Daniel. 2012. Just and Unjust Peace Oxford University Press.

[17] According to the US Bishops (, Catholic Social Teaching includes 7 basic themes: The Life and Dignity of the Human Person; the Call to Family, Community and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; Solidarity; The Option for the Poor, and Care for God’s Creation. For a fuller treatment of the scope of Catholic Social Teaching including major documents, important quotes and the theme of “peacemaking”, see To search the Catechism of the Catholic Church for Catholic Social teachings, see

[18] Lederach, “The Long Journey Back to Humanity”, p. 51.

[19] Lederach, John Paul. 1997. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies Washington, D.C. : United States Institute of Peace Press, p 50.

[20] Lederach, John Paul. 2005. The Moral Imagination: the Art and Soul of Building Peace New York: Oxford University Press, p. 79.

[21] Chacko, Betsie. 2008. “The Ripe Moment for Civil Society.” International Negotiation 13 (1), p. 96.


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David O'Brien
David Miranda O'Brien earned a B.S. in broadcast journalism from Boston University and a Master of Divinity degree from Notre Dame. He recently served as the Associate Director of Religious Education in the Lay Development Division of the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama. He also has worked as an adjunct faculty member in the theology department at Spring Hill College. He has two decades of experience as a community organizer, public speaker, and writer.