Francis: “Pacem in Terris” was “a cry to mankind, but also a plea to Heaven.”

The pope reflects on the key themes of John XXIII’s landmark encyclical

From Vatican Information Service, a report on the pope’s comments today on Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical, “Pacem in Terris”:

“Looking at our current situation, I wonder if we have learnt the lessons of ‘Pacem in terris’. I ask myself whether the words ‘justice’ and ‘solidarity’ exist only in our dictionary, or if we indeed all work towards making them a reality”, said the Pope, in an address to participants in the meeting promoted by the Pontifical Council “Justice and Peace” to commemorate fifty years since the publication of the encyclical of the future saint John XXIII.

“Pace in terris” (“Peace on earth”), as Francis noted, was written in the most critical period of the Cold War, when humanity feared finding itself at the brink of a worldwide atomic conflict due to the protracted confrontation between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. With this encyclical, John XXIII launched a dramatic appeal for peace to world leaders. “It was a cry to mankind, but also a plea to Heaven. The dialogue that opened, with some difficulty, between the two great opposing blocs led them to overcome this phase during the pontificate of the other blessed pope, John Paul II, and to open up space for freedom and dialogue. The seeds of peace sown by blessed John XXIII bore fruit but, despite the fall of walls and barriers, the world continues to hunger for peace and the appeal made in ‘Pacem in terris’ retains a powerful current relevance”.

John XXIII’s encyclical confirms that the foundation for building peace consists in “the divine origin of the human being, of society and authority, which requires individuals, families, the various social groups and States to live in relations based on justice and solidarity. It is therefore the task of all men to build peace, following Jesus Christ’s example, and by two routes: the promotion and practice of justice … and by contributing … to full human development, according to the logic of solidarity”.

The consequence of looking to the divine origin of the person, of society and of authority itself is none other than “the value of the person, the dignity of each human being, always to be promoted, respected and protected. And as blessed John XXIII states, these are not only the principal civil and political rights to be guaranteed; every person should also be granted effective access to essential means of subsistence: food, water, shelter, healthcare, education and the possibility of forming and supporting a family. These aims should be an absolute priority for national and international action, and their fulfilment sets the parameters by which such action may be judged. Lasting peace for all depends on this”.

“Certainly, the encyclical states objectives and elements that are now form part of our way of thinking”, stated the Pope, “but it remains to be asked: do they correspond to reality? Fifty years on, do they find confirmation in the development of our societies?”.

“’Pacem in terris’ does not intend to state that it is the Church’s task to give concrete directions on themes that, in their complexity, should be left open to free discussion. On political, economic and social matters there is not the dogma to indicate practical solutions, but rather to favour dialogue, listening, patience, respect for others, sincerity and also willingness to revise one’s opinion. The basic aim of John XXIII’s call for peace in 1962 was to orientate international debate according to these virtues”.

The fundamental principles of the encyclical may be applied to a series of new current situations, including those under analysis in these days by the participants in the meeting organised by the Pontifical Council “Justice and Peace”: education, the influence of mass media communication, access to the earth’s resources, the application of the results of biological research, the arms race, and national and international security measures. “The worldwide economic crisis, which is a serious symptom of the lack of respect for man and for the truth with which decisions have been made by governments and by citizens, provides us with clear evidence. ‘Pacem in terris’ traces a direct line from the peace that is to be constructed in the heart of mankind to a rethinking of our model of development and action at all levels, in order that our world become a world of peace. I wonder”, concluded Francis, “if we are ready to accept the invitation”.

At the end of the meeting, the Pope spoke about the tragic shipwreck this morning near the Italian island of Lampedusa. The stricken boat was carrying over three hundred immigrants, of whom more than 90 lost their lives and approximately 250 are still missing.

“Speaking of peace, speaking of the inhuman worldwide economic crisis, which is a serious symptom of the lack of respect for mankind, I cannot neglect to mention with great suffering the many victims of yet another tragic shipwreck today in the sea of Lampedusa. The word shame springs to mind. Shame! Let us pray together for those who have lost their lives – men, women, children, for their families and for all refugees. Let us unite our strength in order that there be no more tragedies of this type! Only decisive collaboration by all of us can help to prevent this”.

For a great introduction and overview of “Pacem in Terris” and its subsequent influence, see J.J. Zeilger’s June 2013 article for CWR, “Pacem in terris at 50”. Zeigler writes:

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. …

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.”

Read the entire article.

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About Carl E. Olson 1232 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.