Fifty Years Ago in 'America': John Courtney Murray on 'Pacem in Terris'

Fifty years ago John Courtney Murray, S.J., a former editor at America and a peritus at Vatican II, looked at John XXII's encylical on war and peace. It is interesting to note that Murray,  the foremost expert on religious liberty who would help shape the council's groundbreaking document on that subject, cites Pacem in Terris as a "development of the tradition." Today the council's decree on religious liberty is cited as the classic example of the development of doctrine:

An adequate interpretation of the encyclical “Pacem in Terris” must wait on lengthy study, because the reach of the Popes words, in its breadth and depth, is greatly extensive. What follows are some comments on certain salient points of the encyclical, on the quality of the Pope's thought and its major accents.

It is obvious, in the first instance, that the Pope here offers a shining example of everything that he means by his own word, aggiornamento. He situates himself squarely in the year 1963. There is not the slightest note of nostalgia, nor of lament over the past course of history or over the current situation that history has evoked here on earth. The Pope confronts all the facts of political, social, economic and cultural change that have been the product of the modern era. Generously and ungrudgingly, he accepts those elements of historical progress which can be recognized as such by the application of traditional principles as norms of discernment.

The Pope then proceeds to speak to the postmodern age, to a new era of history that has not yet found its name but that is clearly with us. His acute sense of the basic need of the new age is evident in the word that is so often repeated in the encyclical and that sets its basic theme. I mean the word "order." This does seem to be the contemporary issue. The process of ordering and organizing the world is at the moment going forward. The issue is not whether we shall have order in the world; the contemporary condition of chaos has become intolerable on a world-wide scale, and the insistent demand of the peoples of the world is for order. The question is, then, on what principles is the world going to be ordered.

The basic principle of the Roman Pontiff is as old as Plato, for whom society was "man writ large." The "man" whom the Pope puts at the basis and center of a human world order is not the abstract human nature which is presented in certain older textbooks on ethics. His "man" is the man of today, that is to say, the human person upon whose structured nature history too has left its mark. This strongly personalist accent of the Pope should quiet the fears and win the sympathies of those to whom the phrase "natural law" is uncongenial.

In dealing with the problem of political order, Pope John XXII represents a development of the tradition. He leaves behind the predominantly ethical concept of the society-state which was characteristic of Leo XIII. He adopts the more juridical conception of the state that was characteristic of Pius XII, and he carries this conception to new lengths. For instance, he clearly accepts the distinction that seems to be missing from Leo XIII, namely, the distinction between society and the state. His general conception of the political ideal is fundamentally that of St. Thomas, "the free man under a limited government." The Pope states, with a new firmness of accent, the three principles that constitute this ideal. The first is that society must afford men "the sphere of freedom." The second is the ancient principle of constitutionalism: that the state has its foundations in constitutional law whereby the powers of government are limited. Even the modern conception of the written constitution is endorsed by the Pope, for the first time (if I am not mistaken) in the history of papal utterances. The third principle is that of popular participation in the public administration. Though this principle is deeply rooted in the liberal and Christian political tradition of the West, the strong emphasis given it in this encyclical again represents a welcome newness.

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

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