Are Catholic campuses modeling an understanding of and commitment to nonviolence?

Modeling Nonviolence: The Role of Catholic Campuses in Global Peace Movements

As an international Catholic organization with a long-term presence in the Holy Land and a deep commitment to just peace for Palestinians and Israelis, Pax Christi International has called repeatedly for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the horrifying cycles of violence that have engulfed the region especially since October 7. Our Catholic Nonviolence Initiative has been particularly attentive to the student demonstrations and encampments at universities in many countries and sees in them extraordinary examples of active, principled, strategic nonviolent action.  

Tragically, it has not been the main story told by the media, highlighted by politicians or noticed by many university presidents, but a commitment to active nonviolence is frequently found in the center of the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and secular students working together to draw attention to deep suffering in Gaza and to disengage their universities from complicity in brutality on the other side of the world.  

Many students escalated their nonviolent action to encampments after months of mostly off-campus efforts to end the war in Gaza. They saw a direct connection between the tuition and fees they paid and their own university’s investment in the companies that built the bombs killing thousands upon thousands of Palestinian children. And they set out to interrupt that connection. 

In preparation for taking more risky nonviolent action, many students built strong, inclusive inter-organizational networks that brought together students across differences of religion, philosophy and experience to agree upon a code of nonviolent conduct, common demands and public messaging, mutual and self-care, diversity and inclusion, internal communications, respect for each other’s decisions about their own level of risk and a commitment to truth and accurate information.

They understood encampments as an expression of nonviolent action; respectful negotiations with their university’s administration as an expression of nonviolent action; principle-driven divestment as an expression of nonviolent action; civil disobedience as a powerful tool in the nonviolent toolbox appropriate to employ in response to atrocities that they believed to be genocidal. 

When the student encampments were attacked by police and militant groups, most seemed intent on remaining nonviolent. When they were interviewed by the media, they responded with clarity, highlighting the purpose of their nonviolent demonstrations. When they were accused of being disruptive, they explained that strong actions can be disruptive and still be nonviolent. 

And they have been creative. When President Joe Biden gave the commencement address at Morehouse University in Atlanta, Georgia, students brought a different, but powerful, nonviolent dynamic to protest his administration’s veto of several cease-fire resolutions at the U.N. Security Council and the $17 billion military aid package for Israel signed by Biden in April. According to a recent Common Dreams article, when Biden was introduced, all but a few of the students remained seated; when the president gave his address, some students and faculty turned their backs while others walked out; faculty members and students wore keffiyehs; others displayed the Palestinian flag on their graduation gowns.

In response to student campaigns, some university administrations have also turned to nonviolent methodologies, listening with care to the students’ demands, engaging in respectful dialogue even across great differences of opinion and conflicting goals, responding with accurate and transparent information. Many faculty members have valued the students’ careful preparations and principled actions and have sought ways to support their efforts. For example, over 1400 faculty and staff members at the University of California wrote in a public statement: “As our students stand up and use their voices, we will always do our best to support them and their basic human rights, and thereby support our university and our democracy.”

Many of these nonviolent actions have taken place at Catholic universities. Are Catholic campuses modeling an understanding of and commitment to nonviolence? Are students in Catholic universities learning about nonviolence and the connection of nonviolence to the heart of the Gospel? Do Catholic university administrators have anything to offer to this global conversation? Are Catholic parishes supporting students’ efforts to stand up for their beliefs? Are Catholic communities facilitating thoughtful conversations about the war in the Holy Land; about anti-Zionism vs. anti-Semitism; about how to confront the policies of the Israeli government in Gaza without reproducing anti-Semitic behaviour; about anti-war efforts in Israel as well as in Palestine? 

Nonviolence is a spirituality, a way of life, an ethic that is potentially universal, a proven, often-effective approach to preventing or interrupting violence, including egregious violence like that the world has witnessed in Gaza, and a way of promoting just peace. What if 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide were formed from the beginning of life to understand and appreciate the power and effectiveness of active nonviolence and the connection of nonviolence to the heart of the Gospel? Would we better understand the “language” of the student demonstrations and be better prepared to amplify their important message?

By John Stowe – Bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, President of Pax Christi USA