Matthew describes a family coping with a crisis. In Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, Joseph learns that Herod wants to destroy the new-born child, whom the king fears is a potential threat to his power. Quickly, Joseph takes “the child and his mother” and they flee during the night to Egypt.

This pattern is repeated over and over again as men of violence fight for power. Typically those who suffer the most in these conflicts are women and children. Presently, this struggle for power is taking place in the Central African Republic, in Southern Sudan and in Syria, the nations which Pope Francis prayed for on Christmas.

The causes of these conflicts are complex and yet there are enough patterns that we can consider conflicts in general as well, especially today, on Holy Family Sunday, conflicts within families, marriages and all our relationships. Thomas Aquinas’ considerations on “peace” may give us some insight.

Why are there conflicts in relationships? Thomas states what may be obvious and yet is generally overlooked: “Man’s heart is not at peace, so long as he has not what he wants, or if, having what he wants, there still remains something for him to want, and which he cannot have at this time” (2a2ae. 29, 1).[1]

A person believes that something is keeping him or her from having what he or she wants. Of course, no one has everything that he or she wants. However, conflicts within nations are often caused by long-standing deprivations of basic needs. A recent book on the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 is entitled, Out Turn to Eat, suggesting that some groups were fighting for what they should have. A starting point to resolving conflict is to listen to what the others are saying. What do they want? Are they reasonable requests?

According to Thomas, concord is when people agree on the same thing. When a person agrees because of force or fear, there really isn’t peace because “concord” isn’t really there (2a2ae. 29, 1 ad 1).[2] In some nations, a strong leader has been able to suppress dissention. Eventually the smoldering resentments have emerged because the genuine needs have not been addressed.

Any desire is implicitly a desire for peace, to obtain what he or she desires without hindrance (2a2ae. 29, 2). Thomas points out that even people who start wars and dissensions want peace. They seek to break the existing stability because they consider it a fraudulent peace, that maintains the needs of others but not themselves (2a2ae. 29, 2 ad 2). Of course, this way of achieving “peace” lays the groundwork for future conflict because this “peace” serves their own needs while depriving others.

Thomas is well aware that what we might desire might not be a real good but an apparent good. An apparent good brings a false peace, which calms the appetite in some ways but still the appetite remains restless and disturbed because the apparent good is not our most. Thomas insists that true peace is only from seeking good things because only good things really satisfy us (2a2ae. 29, 2 ad 3).

Ultimately true peace comes when all our desires rest in that one object – the eternal good. Even now, our peace comes from resting in God, even though, as Thomas says, “certain things within and without disturb the peace” (2a2ae. 29, 2 ad 4).

Through charity or love, we find peace in ourselves when all our appetites are directed to one object, which is God: “in so far as man loves God with his whole heart, by referring all things to Him, so that all his desires tend to one object” (2a2ae. 29, 3).

Charity or love brings peace is “in so far as we love our neighbor as ourselves, the result being that we wish to fulfill our neighbor’s will as though it were ours” ( 2a2ae. 29, 3).

Wishing to fulfill our neighbor’s will as though it were ours might seem to be an impossible goal but it does connect with Thomas’ idea of knowing what our neighbor desires. What would our relationships be like if we were sensitive to each other’s needs?

Thomas acknowledges that peace does not require that we share the same opinions on every matter but only on what is essential: “nothing hinders those who have charity from holding different opinions” (2a2ae. 29, 3 ad 2).

Thomas thinks that peace is the fruit of justice indirectly because justice removes the obstacles to peace, but he thinks that peace is the fruit of charity directly since “charity, according to its very nature, causes peace” (2a2ae. 29, 3 ad 3). Thomas affirms “Charity causes peace precisely because it is love of God and of our neighbor” (2a2ae. 29, 4). Paul VI put it somewhat differently, in his Message for World Day of Peace, in 1972, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Wanting others to have what is justly theirs is also part of love.

Although much more could be added to these basic thoughts of Thomas, still trying to understand what the other person desires is a key to resolving conflict. To make their desires our own concretizes Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P

[1] References to the Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, followed by the number of the question and then the article in the question. This passage is from the Secunda Secundae (Second part of the Second). The second part of the Summa, which deals with our way to God, is divided into two parts, the first and the second. The question is Question 29, “On Peace” and this is the first article of the question.

[2] When a reference to the Summa contains the Latin preposition “ad”, Thomas is replying to an objection that he raised at the beginning of the article.