Fifty Years Ago in 'America': The Impact of 'Pacem in Terris'

In the May 4, 1963 issue of America the editors surveyed the impact of John XXIII's encyclical on war and peace:

Initial reactions to Pope John's encyclical Pacem in Terris quickly revealed areas in which its practical impact can be expected to make itself felt.

When the London Sunday Times hailed the document as “an act of leadership for which the world was longing,” it explained in part the torrent of editorial comment flooding the world press. A Rome daily, II Tempo, might speak peevishly of an “encyclical of enthusiasms, conceived under the sign of optimism and irenicism.” But the internationally respected Le Monde of Paris termed it rather “realistic, serene and confident of the future.” These qualities it saw as “reflecting the character of its author.”

Religious leaders everywhere praised the profound moral tone and insight of the Pope's message. Here in the United States, J. Irwin Miller, president of the National Council of Churches, noted “remarkable similarities . . . between Roman Catholic thought and that of our constituency.” He pledged that the document's “principles and proposals . . . will receive our interested study and exploration of ways of co-operation.” In a similar vein, the president of the American Jewish Committee, A. M. Sonnabend, declared that the encyclical “creates a broad dimension of possible cooperation among diverse religious, ethnic and racial communities.”

No reactions won more attention, however, than those in the Communist press on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Moscow's Pravda professed to view Pacem in Terris as “an initiative in favor of peace.” Radio Budapest spoke of “a new wind blowing from the Vatican.” A Warsaw daily, Trybuna Ludu, linked the document with a papal plea for peace during the October 1962, crisis in Cuba, and described it as “very important.” In Italy, Communist boss Palmiro Togliatti claimed to see in the Pope's message “something entirely new, conveying the very essence of life itself and telling the world that all of us on earth are part of past, present and future history.”

Here in the United States, the Worker, official Communist semiweekly, insisted that the new encyclical would make Western leaders “change their way of thinking.” Indeed, the secretary of the American Communists, Gus Hall, intimated that party members themselves might have to change in another respect. “There is need,” he commented, “for all forces of progress to re-examine and perhaps readjust our over-all estimate of the Roman Catholic Church as a social institution.”

What did these straws in the Communist wind add up to? Surely nothing in the curiously muted statements issuing from any Communist source even hints at compromise or coexistence, on the ideological plane, with the West—let alone with Christianity. More importantly, of course, even the most casual reader of the encyclical must realize that the Church has no intention of compromising its doctrine based on the teachings of the gospel. It can never remain true to its divinely instituted nature and at the same time renounce its vision of human dignity and the consequent necessity of grounding true peace in respect for the inalienable rights of men. Thus, for the Church any genuine coexistence supposes respect for such rights, including true religious freedom.

Pacem in Terris must be seen as far more than an idle or merely sentimental gesture toward peace. Whatever the motivation behind his remark, Premier Khrushchev spoke the truth when he remarked to an Italian journalist that the encyclical genuinely sought peace, which “can and must be defended by men of good will of every philosophical and religious conviction.” Such peace, Pope John would add, can survive only in an order rooted in “truth, justice, charity and freedom.”

For the rest, Le Monde rightly notes, “there can be no mistaking that the encyclical's closely written lines trace out new approaches heavy with meaning for the future.”

In the coming weeks we will continue to highlight what America was writing about 50 years ago.

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