The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church tends to approach most topics in its 255 pages of text in a cool, dispassionate manner. In places, it appears to be written more for academics than for the average layperson whose task it is to implement Church social teaching.
But when it comes to the topic of terrorism, all that changes. Some of the strongest language in the Compendium can be found in this section. "Terrorism is to be condemned in the most absolute terms. It shows complete contempt for human life and can never be justified. . . . Acts of terrorism are an offence against all humanity" (n. 514).
"Terrorism is one of the most brutal forms of violence traumatizing the international community today; it sows hatred, death and an urge for revenge and reprisal.
"It strikes under the veil of darkness, with no regard for any of the rules by which men have always sought to set limits to conflicts" (n. 513).
In regards to terrorists who justify their actions on the basis of religion, the Compendium is particularly strong: "It is a profanation and a blasphemy to declare oneself a terrorist in God's name. . . . No religion may tolerate terrorism and much less preach it" (n. 515).
The strong language is certainly justified. Random acts of violence intended to sow terror in the general public have been a constant part of global politics now for almost 40 years. Kidnappings, hijackings, suicide bombings and the infamous 9/11 attacks that crashed jetliners into public buildings have become a major instrument of war.
Carried out by shadowy organizations or even isolated individuals, they can occur anywhere. While sometimes they have specific political goals, often they do not. They present themselves as acts of rage directed against particular governments or peoples or even something as amorphous as the Western world in general. These acts of terror have no likelihood of bringing about positive social change. They are purely destructive.
The victims of terrorism are typically non-combatants. It is the attack on the innocent that gives terrorism its unique character – no one is safe.
The Compendium notes that there is a right to defend oneself from terrorism. Of course! But while the terrorist recognizes no morality, those who defend themselves against it must respect human rights and the rule of law.
This may seem like an unfair fight, with the terrorist having more means of violence at his disposal. Nevertheless, to fight terrorism is to defend human rights and the rule of law. To violate them would serve to spread the scope of terrorism.
Although the Compendium does not say so, terrorism is demonic. Its total absence of redeeming value means that it comes from the abyss of evil. To fight terror with terror is to enter into the devil's game.
In his 2004 World Day of Peace message, Pope John Paul II said the fight against terrorism "cannot be limited solely to repressive and punitive operations." There must be "a courageous and lucid analysis of the reasons behind terrorist attacks." It is easier to recruit terrorists when rights are trampled and injustice tolerated (see Compendium, n. 514).
The Church and other faiths must work together to end the causes of terrorism and promote friendship among peoples. The Church should contribute to the more general cause of peace on earth. God loves every person and the Church, as the proclaimer of that love, should spread more respectful ways of dealing with people.
Prayer is one way of taking part in the quest for peace. "Prayer opens the heart not only to a deep relationship with God, but also to an encounter with others marked by respect, understanding, esteem and love" (n. 519).
Peace is built on mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. But reconciliation requires truth and restoration. It is not a simple matter of letting bygones be bygones. Justice must be restored.
The growth of terrorism has forced governments the world over to take strong measures, in some cases restricting the civil liberties of ordinary people. Such steps are often necessary, but they are not sufficient to build a culture of peace.
The world may never be totally rid of terrorism and war. But religious people have a responsibility to help build a culture of peace through prayer, dialogue, mutual respect and forgiveness, and restorative justice.