Jesus and his followers were peaceful, practiced love of neighbor, and for three centuries rejected violence, choosing martyrdom over engaging in violence.

The link with Constantine’s empire resulted in contradictory loyalties. Many Christians retreated to the desert; most shelved the Sermon on the Mount and served Caesar. Augustine employed Cicero and contemporary philosophy to fashion norms for just war and war conduct, expanded and refined by Aquinas and Spanish scholastics: Force may be necessary for “the tranquility of order.”

Save for large medieval peace marches, the post-Reformation peace churches, and Catholic Worker movement pacifism, Gospel nonviolence disappeared. Just war norms were ignored more often than respected, i.e., the Crusades and World War I. Yet, in 1957 Pope Pius XII said that Catholics could not be conscientious objectors. But many Christians remained uncomfortable killing those they supposedly loved.

Europe’s post-World War II recognition of the futility of war, John XXIII’s challenge of modern warfare, Vatican II’s embrace of primacy of conscience, and wide disapproval of the Vietnam carnage all challenged war as a means of conflict resolution. John Paul II embraced just war but never found one he could approve. Nowadays, wars have deceitful justifications and predominantly civilian casualties.

Dan Berrigan, who burned draft records to protest the Vietnam intervention and engaged in numerous acts of resistance to war leading to jail time and who died Saturday, argued that the Gospel calls us to be faithful, however remote the prospect of results. The U.S. Bishops’ 1985 pastoral, “The Challenge of Peace,” rejected nuclear weapons and legitimized Gospel nonviolence as an alternative theology to just war theory.

John Paul II’s U.S. bishops largely ignored the call to peace. Assuming impunity from accountability, the U.S. has become the most violent, aggressive nation on earth, from Vietnam to East Timor, Central America, and the Mediterranean to the Middle East – at the sacrifice of addressing serious domestic needs. Both likely 2016 presidential nominees are adverse to dialogue, promising war at first blush. For the most part, Church criticism has been muted.

But in April, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Pax Christi International, and the Catholic Peacebuilding Movement sponsored a conference in the Vatican on nonviolence and just peace that may well herald a radical reversal of Roman Catholic teaching.

Pope Francis’s message to the conference proposed as goals the abolition of war, recognition of our common humanity as a basis for resolving conflicts, and substitution of mercy for indifference and dialogue for violence.

The conference produced “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence.” It sees Christians “called to recognize the centrality of active nonviolence to the vision and message of Jesus” and “to our long-term vocation of healing and reconciling both people and the planet.”

The Church should invest its resources in promoting a spirituality and practice of active nonviolence, employing “the power of love in action.” There is no “just” war, a theory too often “used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war.” Nonviolent social methodology works. It can resolve conflicts peaceably. And a “Just Peace” provides a “vision and ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict.”

The statement calls for integration of Gospel nonviolence into the life and work of the Church; promotion of nonviolent practices and strategies such as nonviolent resistance and restorative justice, initiation of a global conversation on nonviolence; an end to teaching “just war theory,” and raising the prophetic voice of the Church “to challenge unjust world powers” and defend nonviolent activists working for peace and justice.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council and major author of Laudato Si, the climate encyclical, approved the statement.

The Rev. John Dear, a conference participant and longtime friend of Berrigan, observed that the encyclical the conference asks Pope Francis to write “could open up a whole new history for Christianity, and return us to the spirit of the early Church, where no one was allowed to participate in war, prepare for war, or kill another human being.”

After the wide disregard of “The Challenge of Peace,” this is revolutionary – like Jesus’s words: “Put down the sword.” Comfortable U.S. Catholics will be stirred and more Protestant churches will likely join those already committed to active nonviolence.

Fortuitously, the Vatican conference call for Just Peace theology gave Dan Berrigan a hopeful departure. May he rest in peace.

USM professor William Slavick was Pax Christi Maine coordinator for 23 years; he is author of the “War and Peace” chapter in “Rome Has Spoken.”