Catholic Strategic Peacebuilding: The Unique Role of the Laity Part 2

Catholic Strategic Peacebuilding: The Unique Role of the Laity Part 2

Grassroots Peacemaking — The Laity of the Catholic Church

Fr. Kenneth Himes from Boston College describes the Catholic notion of peace on three levels: the peace that will come when Jesus returns in the Second Coming; the inner peace that results from spiritual communion with God; and the political peace that is intrinsic to Christ’s vision of the Kingdom of God, a vision that points to the original intention of God as illustrated in the Creation Story of the Garden of Eden.[22] The Catholic hierarchy teaches and preaches about all three levels. Through the social justice ministries of the Church, clergy and religious also work to build the Kingdom of God. But the laity are specifically sent out by the Church to bring the work of Christ to the secular world in their professional and personal lives, directly impacting political peace.

However, despite this natural affiliation of the laity with the political peace of the Kingdom of God, the hierarchy and the clergy of the Catholic Church have been the segments of the Catholic community most prominently involved in SPB. Their positions on the top levels and middle out portions of society make them logical choices. The respect they are given, and their symbolic authority, work in their favor. But strategic peacebuilding is not their job. They were called, educated, spiritually formed and commissioned to serve the world primarily inside the Church. The Church officially sees the hierarchy and the clergy as fundamentally responsible for intra-ecclesial matters while the proper role of the laity is “the renewal of the whole temporal order.”[23] It is the lay people who are formally tasked with the role of bringing the Kingdom of God to the world outside the doors of the Church. They are the ones who function in government, business, the court system, family life, civil society and the military. Members of the hierarchy who do step into the world of politics are often viewed with suspicion and at times even called to account by Rome. Therefore, to lean exclusively on the bishops and the priests is to ignore the enormous potential of activating the laity to live out their evangelical commission to bring the fruits of the gospel to all nations.

It is also noteworthy that Catholic Social Teaching, which deals with political and social issues, is often described as the Church’s best kept secret. This comes as no surprise when the Church is overly dependent on the prerogatives of its clerical leadership, who are not steeped in the world of politics and social justice. Lay initiatives are needed to activate this rich body of teaching in ways that begin to empower those in the pews to embody the principles of peacemaking in the places lay people uniquely find themselves.

What lay people lack and what they are looking for from the official leadership of the Church is a mandate to operate as Catholic peacemakers in their families, in their communities and in the world. They are waiting for official permission and a systematic theological formation that they can use to marshal their secular expertise for the cause of peacebuilding.

Catholic Strategic Peacebuilding — A Work of the Whole Church

The laity bring specific capacities to the task of SPB. I offer a few specifics for consideration:

  1. The laity live locally and make up the civil society that is most directly impacted by the war. “While negotiators, government officials, militaries, and rebel groups come and go, civil society remains. Peace ultimately belongs to the people who survive the conflict; therefore, there is a compelling need to understand how and when (lay Catholics in) civil society can play an effective role in the peace process.”[24]
  2. Lay people are not limited by the same constraints as the clergy. Their engagement will not diminish the parish collections or alienate certain influential parishioners. They are not expected to represent all the people in the community, an expectation that renders most preachers mute on the political implications of the gospel lest someone be offended. The hierarchy in Ireland succumbed to this pressure early in the conflicts of Northern Ireland, remaining silent and aloof out of fear of taking sides.[25]
  3. All Catholics are baptized into Christ and his ministries of “priest, prophet and king”.[26] The prophetic function of the clergy is often inhibited by the need to not get ahead of the local Church culture on social issues. Lay people suffer no such limitations. Innovation and creativity are available to lay members in a way that eludes those operating within the institutional structures of the Church. St. Francis (a layman) and Dorothy Day are two excellent examples. Their radical call to peace challenged the Church in ways that the institution is still struggling to catch up with.
  4. There are already experts among the Catholic laity in economics, politics, law, mediation, community organizing and every other segment of society that will be needed for strategic peacebuilding work.

But can the Catholic Church become such a school of peacebuilding? Are there pieces of the tradition and the institutional structure that lend themselves to this type of formation? Again, a few examples can serve to start the conversation:

  1. Catholic Social Doctrine, rooted in scripture and the official teaching of the Church, is a 100-year-old body of literature that reflects theologically on precisely the questions of justice, peace, community, and the dignity of the human person. It is a rich resource for Catholics, Christians and all people of good will. Catholics who are immersed in this teaching through parish-based programs such asJustFaith showed an 89% to 97% increase in social action after completing their formation.[27]
  2. At Mass, Catholics pray for peace, exchange the sign of peace, and are sent out to “go in peace” or “go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”[28] They sing hymns about peace including St. Francis’ prayer “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace”. The intercessions also often include prayers for peace and for the soldiers among the community.
  3. The rich Catholic tradition of prayer, contemplation, meditation and silence lends itself to the mindful, attentive work of peacebuilding. Silence is required for deep listening. Peace is the fruit of this type of intentional presence; a presence that offers both support and an ability to discern the deep needs that sometimes lie beyond the words being expressed.[29]
  4. The Catholic Church maintains a core set of beliefs based on the gospel and tradition that are shared by most other Christian denominations and other religions. “Among these beliefs are a conviction of the equality and dignity of all human beings; upholding the sacredness of the individual person and his/her conscience; defending the value of the human community; arguing the might is not right, and that human power is neither self-sufficient nor absolute; espousing compassion, unselfishness; arguing that the force of inner truthfulness and the spirit are more powerful than hate, enmity and self interest and standing with the poor and the oppressed against the rich and the oppressors.”[30]
  5. Catholic parishes and schools already provide education and moral formation for young Catholics from preschool through Ph.D. programs (see the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame).[31] Already substantial efforts exist to provide peacebuilding formation for families, schools and religious education programs.[32]
  6. Catholic commentators, professors and public intellectuals often already contribute at the highest levels of policy making.


Catholicism is uniquely situated to make a significant contribution to the work of SPB. It has already become a reluctant participant on the level of its bishops and priests. However, if the Church develops a thick theological understanding of the role of the laity in peace work and starts to understand its parish communities as schools for peacebuilding, it can operate on the vanguard of educating and forming members of civil society to bring the rich insights of the Catholic social tradition to peace work. “Religious congregations have been shown to be a hub for the formation of political views.”[33] With its “ubiquitous presence”, the Catholic Church has the unique opportunity to contribute to the work of bringing peace to the world, which seems consistent with the work of its primary source of inspiration, Jesus Christ, who is often given the title of “Prince of Peace”.

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By David O’Brien


[22] Himes, Kenneth Fr., “Peacebuilding and Catholic Social Teaching”, pp. 268-269, found in Schreiter, Robert J., R. S. Appleby, and Gerard F. Powers. 2010. Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

[23] For a clear articulation of the distinction in the Church’s official understanding of the difference between the role of the hierarchy in the ecclesial realm and the primary role of the laity in the world, see the writings of Pope John Paul II, especially paragraph #15 of John Paul II. 1989. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici of His Holiness John Paul II on the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World, Boston: Daughters of St. Paul. See also Coughlan, Peter. 1989. The Hour of the Laity: Their Expanding Role: Exploring “Christifideles Laici” the Pope’s Key Document on the Laity Newton, NSW, Australia; Philadelphia, PA, USA : E.J. Dwyer.

[24] Chacko, Betsie. 2008. “The Ripe Moment for Civil Society.” International Negotiation 13 (1), p. 93.

[25] Ahu Sandal, Nukhet. “Religious Actors as Epistemic Communities in Conflict Transformation: The Cases of South Africa and Northern Ireland.” Review of International Studies; Rev.Int.Stud. 37 (3): pp. 943-948.

[26] See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph #1546 (

[27] Based on research data provided in an interview with Jack Jezreel, founder, president and outgoing executive director of JustFaith The impact of JustFaith has been so dramatic on local parish lay people that Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Pax Christi and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development partnered with the group under the auspices of the U.S. Bishops Conference.

[28] See

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

[30] Ahu Sandal, Nukhet. “Religious Actors as Epistemic Communities in Conflict Transformation: The Cases of South Africa and Northern Ireland.” Review of International Studies; Rev.Int.Stud. 37 (3): p. 937.

[31] See Hesburgh, Theodore, M., “Educating for Peacemaking”, pp. 269-273, found in Powers, Gerard F., Drew Christiansen, and Robert T. Hennemeyer. 1994. Peacemaking: Moral and Policy Challenges for a New World Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference.

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

[33] See the footnote in Ahu Sandal, Nukhet. “Religious Actors as Epistemic Communities in Conflict Transformation: The Cases of South Africa and Northern Ireland.” Review of International Studies; Rev.Int.Stud. 37 (3): p. 936 which references the work of Christopher P. Gilbert, The Impact of Churches on Political Behavior: An Empirical Study (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993); Ted Jelen, ‘Political Christianity: A Contextual Analysis’, American Journal of Political Science, 36 (1992), pp. 692-714.


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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.