Pacem in Terris at 50

Written in the midst of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, John XXIII’s landmark encyclical contains important messages for our world today.

at 50

On April 11, 1963, The Beverly Hillbillies was the top television show in the United States, works by J. D. Salinger and John Steinbeck topped the fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists, and the lead headline in the New York Times was “Atom Submarine with 129 Lost in Depths 220 Miles Off Boston; Oil Slick Seen Near Site of Dive.” The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” was the nation’s most popular song; It Happened at the World’s Fair, starring Elvis Presley, was the most popular movie. And Blessed John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), the first papal encyclical addressed not only to the Catholic faithful, but also to all men of good will.

“By addressing an encyclical on peace to all men of good will, John XXIII was not merely being good Pope John,” says Mary Ann Glendon, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “He was insisting that the responsibility for setting conditions for peace does not just belong to the great and powerful of the world—it belongs to each and every one of us. That’s crystal clear in the closing paragraphs where he says, ‘There is an immense task incumbent on all men of good will’—the task ‘of bringing about true peace in the order established by God.’ It’s ‘an imperative of duty; a requirement of love.’”

Blessed John wrote his encyclical letter de pace omnium gentium in veritate, iustitia, caritate, libertate constituenda, according to the encyclical’s Latin title—“about establishing the peace of all nations in truth, justice, charity, liberty,” or as the phrase is more loosely rendered in the most popular English version, “on establishing universal peace in truth, justice, charity, and liberty.” The official Latin version appears in Acta Apostolicae Sedis (beginning on page 257); the Vatican website’s Latin version contains additional notes and at least one Latin error that did not appear in the original. The official version contains five untitled sections with unnumbered paragraphs.

The Italian version contained section titles, subsections, and subsection titles where none exist in the official Latin text. The translator of the most popular English version, which originally appeared in the publication The Pope Speaks, incorporated these Italian additions, while the translator of another English version, found here, did not. This latter English translation has the advantage of adhering more closely to the Latin in the body of the encyclical; unfortunately, it does not retain the original division into five sections, thus making the encyclical appear less structured than it is really is.

Reaction and influence

Pacem in Terris is an extended reflection on the moral order. “The Creator of the world has imprinted in man’s heart an order which his conscience reveals to him and enjoins him to obey,” the pontiff wrote (no. 5), explaining:

By these laws [in human nature] men are most admirably taught, first of all how they should conduct their mutual dealings among themselves, then how the relationships between the citizens and the public authorities of each state should be regulated, then how states should deal with one another, and finally how, on the one hand individual men and states, and on the other hand the community of all peoples, should act towards each other, the establishment of such a community being urgently demanded today by the requirements of universal common good (no. 7).

Thus, the first section examines the order among men; the second, the relation between citizens and public authorities; the third, the relation between states; and the fourth, the relation of individuals and states to the world community. The fifth section consists of pastoral exhortations.

Reaction to the encyclical was widespread and favorable: it was immediately hailed by sources as diverse as the US State Department and the European Communist press. Pacem in Terris “is not just the voice of an old priest, nor just that of an ancient Church; it is the voice of the conscience of the world,” stated the Washington Post praise reflected in other editorials of the day.

“I am much encouraged by a reading in this last week of the remarkable encyclical, Pacem in Terris,” President John F. Kennedy said at a convocation at Boston College. “In its penetrating analysis of today’s great problems, of social welfare and human rights, of disarmament and international order and peace, that document surely shows that on the basis of one great faith and its traditions there can be developed counsel on public affairs that is of value to all men and women of good will. As a Catholic, I am proud of it; and as an American, I have learned from it.”

Pacem in Terris was more than an encyclical—it was an event, a ‘happening,’ as we used to say in those days,” recalls Glendon. She told CWR that “one gets a sense of just how much of an event it was when one recalls that it was printed in full in the New York Times. Two years later, it was the subject of a conference at the United Nations attended by over 2,000 statespersons and scholars, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey, UN Secretary General U Thant, diplomats Abba Eban and George Kennan, American politicians Eugene McCarthy and Adlai Stevenson, and scores of public figures from every corner of the world.”

Glendon added:

The fact that the encyclical attracted so much notice beyond Catholic circles in itself made an impression on American Catholics, even those who were not ordinarily standing by their mailboxes waiting for the latest word from Rome. 

No doubt the timing had much to do with its impact. The Cold War was at its height, and the world had been shaken by the Cuban missile crisis the preceding fall. But Pacem in Terris also spoke to the momentous changes that were taking rise in America. It made a huge impression on young Catholics like myself who were beginning to be active in the civil rights movement.

It was exciting that the Pope himself seemed to be encouraging our causes. His emphatic insistence that “racial discrimination can in no way be accepted,” his affirmation of women’s roles and rights in contemporary society, and his praise for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—all those things contributed to our sense of being on the cusp of historic changes, and gave us a sense of pride that our Church’s leaders were in the forefront. Lest we forget: the previous year Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel of New Orleans had excommunicated three powerful Louisiana political figures for opposing the desegregation of schools. It felt like a great time to be a Catholic!

Blessed John’s encyclical has exercised a profound impact on subsequent Catholic teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the encyclical in its teaching on conversion and society (no. 1886) and authority (nos. 1897 and 1903) and cites the encyclical in its teaching on respect for the human person (no. 1930). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004) quotes the encyclical 16 times and offers 34 additional citations. Each social encyclical written after Pacem in Terris has cited it.

In 2003, Blessed John Paul II referred to the 40th anniversary of Pacem in Terris at least nine times, offering his most extensive reflections in his Messages for the World Day of Peace and World Communication Day. Archbishop Celestino Migliore, then the Vatican’s chief representative at the United Nations, also delivered an address on the encyclical that year.

Pope Benedict XVI described Pacem in Terris as an “immortal encyclical” in a 2006 Angelus address and referred to it at least five times during the last year of his pontificate. Likewise, Pope Francis mentioned the encyclical in an address to the Papal Foundation delivered the day of its 50th anniversary.

Pacem in Terris became the subject of renewed interest in view of its 50th anniversary. In 2012, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences devoted its plenary session to it; the proceedings included notable contributions by coeditors Mary Ann Glendon and Russell Hittinger, as well as reflections by ecclesiastical, academic, cultural, and political dignitaries, including Lord David Alton, who reflected on Pacem in Terris and globalization, and Janne Haaland Matlary, who spoke on human rights.

In recent months, the University of Notre Dame, the Catholic University of America, and Georgetown University have hosted conferences on the encyclical. At the conference at Catholic University, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, discussed Catholic peacebuilding, and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, spoke about solidarity and American foreign policy.

Development of doctrine

In Pacem in Terris, Blessed John cited Sacred Scripture, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Popes Leo XIII, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII. CWR asked scholars and other Christian leaders who have reflected on the encyclical to discuss the most important ways in which the encyclical developed the tradition of Catholic social teaching in which it is rooted.

George Weigel said that “by applying the Augustinian concept of peace-as-order to contemporary conditions, Pacem in Terris stretched the classic Catholic moral tradition’s thinking about statecraft while maintaining the tradition’s intellectual tether to its roots.”

“Pope John taught that a just and peaceful human society is ‘primarily a spiritual reality,’” observed Bishop Pates. “He declared that a truly human society consists of ‘spiritual values which exert a guiding influence on culture, economics, social institutions, political movements’ (no. 36). This spiritual insight advanced the tradition at the same time that it returned us to the central Gospel mandate of being peacemakers. Ultimately, peace is about love—God’s love. In the words of Blessed Pope John, it is a spiritual call to have love, not fear’ guide the relationships among individuals and even nations (no. 129).”

“As an encyclical it drew on all the usual sources,” said Lord Alton, “but its sense of urgency and its accessibility set the tone for the teaching documents which have followed, perhaps especially the encyclicals of John Paul II.”

Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International and speaker at the Catholic University conference, told CWR that “one of the most interesting topics Pope John XXIII addressed in Pacem in Terris was the inadequacy of the modern state to ensure the universal common good (nos. 137-38). At the same time, Pacem in Terris emphasizes the right role of government based upon the principle of subsidiarity. The relevance of this concern about global political authority today was reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate,” his 2009 social encyclical.

Matlary said that Pacem in Terris “centers [Catholic] social teaching on the concept of human rights, both the social and economic, as well as the political and civil rights. By so doing, it argues that only states that respect human rights, which imply democracy and rule of law, are legitimate.”

“The Pope states without any doubt that states based on force of some kind—be they Communist or theocratic dictatorship—are intolerable and illegitimate,” she added. “This very clear embrace of liberal democracy is a step forward: the Church has always lived with the powers that be, but in our age there is but one model that is acceptable according to Christian ethics.”

Enduring significance

Press coverage of Pacem in Terris in April 1963 focused almost entirely on the encyclical’s discussion of nuclear weapons (nos. 109-119). What is most significant about the encyclical with the passage of five decades?

“Briefly, the press reporting focused on an immediate issue, but Pope John’s message was meant to be applied much more broadly, and was rooted in his own experiences of the conflicts of the preceding century,” said Lord Alton. “It did strike a special chord with a generation desperate not to see the world engulfed in another cataclysmic global war. It has lost none of its relevance with the passage of time and continues to speak to both heart and head—with a message which needs to be heard from the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] to the DPRK [North Korea] and by the leaders of the nations.”

“The nuclear issue is very different today than at his time, so we should look at other aspects of the encyclical,” said Matlary. “I think the acceptance of human rights, defined as natural rights, is the key novelty. And with it, the need to stand by human rights, rightly understood, something which is extremely important today. The Holy See is the only world actor that does that today, at a time marked by the politicization of human rights in every Western state: the rights to life, the family, etc., are key ideological battlegrounds.”

Weigel likewise notes that “from a historical point of view, Pacem in Terris inserted the Catholic Church firmly into the late-20th century debate on human rights, which proved to be such an important tool in the hands of those who eventually brought down the Berlin wall and thus made an enormous contribution to peace.”

Weigel adds, “The encyclical’s emphasis on ‘order’ was also an anticipation of the keep question posed by globalization: if the world is being ‘ordered,’ in the sense of becoming ever more interconnected, on what principles is that ‘ordering’ going to be reflected in the world’s political and economic structures? That remains as crucial a question today.”

“Pope John, without the benefit of today’s popular understanding of ‘globalization,’ sketched a broad vista of the ‘universal common good’ of humanity (nos. 132-141),” observes Bishops Pates. “In a prophetic passage, John XXIII wrote: ‘National economies are gradually becoming so interdependent that a kind of world economy is being born … [E]ach country’s social progress, order, security and peace are necessarily linked with the social progress, order, security and peace of every other country’ (no. 130). The fates of all nations are linked. We are one human family.”

“Peace is not achieved, as Pope John noted, by ‘an equal balance of armaments’ (no. 110),” Bishop Pates continued. “It is built by contributing to the common good of the whole human family. We are challenged to trust in relationships and engagement with other nations as the true path to peace. Every Christian, every person, shares this vocation of promoting peace. I believe that what the Holy Father advocated has been proven true from a negative perspective in the armed encounters the United States has experienced in the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars.”

Pax Christi International’s Dennis adds that “the context for Pacem in Terris was profoundly different from our context 50 years later. The geopolitical reality and even the global economy (at least those dimensions of both that were visible in the US and European media) were then largely bi-polar—shaped by the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. People living behind the Iron Curtain could hardly imagine an end to the status quo.”

“I am struck by the scope and optimism of Pacem in Terris, as well as by its emphases on human rights and duties; on the need to end the arms race; and on the need for an effective international body to ensure the universal common good—all of which remain relevant today,” she continued. “That kind of optimism was interesting (and consistent with the inherent optimism of the Christian tradition), given that Pope John XXIII had not seen the nonviolent revolutions that would eventually end the Cold War. At the same time, many of the positive changes he saw on the horizon have not been fully realized … The human ‘rights and duties’ the document holds up as ‘universal and inviolable and therefore altogether inalienable’ are also far-reaching. Many of them, however, are still in need of urgent attention.”

Pacem in Terris also, of course, speaks directly to the arms race,” Dennis added. “Fifty years later, the need for disarmament is just as urgent. While there are fewer nuclear weapons ready to launch, the possibility of nuclear terrorism is very real; more countries possess nuclear weapons and not all are signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; and nuclear deterrence has become a permanent state of affairs. Furthermore, we are entering into an era of new lethal technologies (drone warfare) that are shifting the very concept of a limited battlefield and undermining international law.”

Because Pacem in Terris was addressed to all “men of good will,” CWR asked the president of the National Association of Evangelicals to offer reflections on the encyclical.

“Fifty years later we are impressed with his foresight, challenged by his insights, grateful for a half century without nuclear war and still yearning for greater peace,” said Leith Anderson. “His opening greeting to ‘all men of good will’ included us evangelicals. It was a call for Catholics and others to join hands for the common good even though there are continuing differences.”

“Evangelicals in America have found Catholics to be our friends and allies in opposing abortion-on-demand, upholding traditional marriage, and advocating for the poor,” he continued. “The strengthening of our cooperation may not have been foreseen by Catholics or Evangelicals in 1963, but the encyclical certainly helped pave the way.”

“The good news is that the pope’s call to end nuclear testing and seek negotiation as a means to resolve conflict has significantly advanced,” Anderson added. “What was a bold proposal 50 years ago has become the international standard today, followed by all nuclear powers except a few rogue nations. Today, the principles of peace must be applied to new and different threats but the principles are the same … Both Catholics and Evangelicals in 2013 are part of a new and different generation, but Pacem in Terris is still news of importance.”

“I think what continues to challenge and inspire us in Pacem in Terris is a message similar to what we find in Federalist No. 1,” said Glendon. “Like Alexander Hamilton, Pope John encourages us to believe that we human beings are not just helplessly carried along on the waves of history, that we can help to shift probabilities in favor of peace, and that we have a responsibility to do so.”

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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.

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