The National Catholic Review
How the prophetic 'Pacem in Terris' helped change the world.

‘Pacem in Terris” was born in the mind of Blessed John XXIII in the fall of 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, when he served as a back channel between President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, urging dialogue to end the most dangerous confrontation of the cold war. For the pope, the missile crisis was a prophetic moment. He offered a message of peace to superpowers locked in a world-threatening contest. Until his intervention, that contest had been defined by ultra-realist war-fighting strategies. His was the classic word of a prophet: an appeal by a man of God to men of power. Challenging the realist suppositions of cold-war strategists, he rejected the generally held notion of mutually assured destruction—that a balance of arms ensured peace among nations—arguing instead that “the solid peace of nations consists…in mutual trust alone.” Like the prophets before him, Pope John also had a vision to share with the human family. “Pacem in Terris” projected a world where peace would be achieved by governments dedicated to the fulfillment of human rights and where global institutions would be established to address global needs.

Fifty years on, John’s vision has begun to be realized. Human rights have become a major factor in international law and diplomacy. Transnational agencies have proliferated to deal with global problems and emergencies. Global governance has begun, albeit imperfectly, to become a reality. Universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity has become a reality and longtime practitioners of nuclear brinksmanship, like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, now call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

As the church commemorates the 50th anniversary of “Pacem in Terris,” Pope John’s prophetic vision has affected world affairs by promoting human rights and strengthening global governance. Though a great deal remains to be done, the world has changed considerably in directions Pope John would have approved.

Setting an Agenda for Human Rights

For the most part, “Pacem in Terris” dealt relatively little with either the issues of nuclear weapons that helped precipitate the encyclical or with other topics associated to that date with Catholic teaching on war and peace. Rather, it proposed a structure of peace built on “the recognition, respect, safeguarding and promotion” of human rights. In so doing, it set the agenda for church participation in world affairs for the years ahead. The Second Vatican Council, taking its cue from “Pacem in Terris,” declared the Gospel as the surest safeguard of “the personal dignity and liberty of man” and announced the promotion of human rights as one of two principal services the Catholic Church renders the world.

In the years that followed, national conferences of bishops, dioceses and religious orders opened human rights offices to address offenses in Latin America, Asia and Africa. These groups worked through the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace with politically influential national bishops’ conferences in the West and with secular human rights agencies to defend people against repressive regimes. Later Blessed John Paul II was a guide for Poland’s Solidarity labor movement and subsequently a leading actor in the events of 1989 that led to the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, making a special contribution to the nonviolent unfolding of those events. His visits and speeches also rendered support to rights advocates around the world.

The secular world was likewise undergoing an awakening to human rights during this time. Amnesty International began making appeals for “prisoners of conscience” in 1961. The adoption of the Helsinki Accords in 1968, especially its civil rights provisions, gave rise to new civil-society groups like the Helsinki Group and Human Rights Watch. In addition, treaties advancing protection against torture, discrimination, genocide and disappearances were adopted, along with others on behalf of children, women, migrant workers, persons with disabilities and indigenous and tribal peoples. Finally, the apparatus for increased international monitoring and enforcement of rights violations began to be erected at the time of the United Nation’s 60th anniversary summit in 2005, with some strengthening of the U.N. capacity in peacemaking and the adoption of the principle of the responsibility to protect, as it is commonly called. Much more must still be done to improve these institutions further, but the outlines of the kind of world Pope John imagined, where public authority upholds the rights of all, has begun to be discernible in our contemporary world.

Shaping a World Community

Traditional Vatican geopolitics, like that of the rest of the post-Westphalian world, focused on the relations among states. Part IV of “Pacem in Terris” still dealt with binational and multinational realities of a traditional sort. But the underlying political theology of the encyclical revived an older, “cosmopolitan” Catholic political theology, identified from late antiquity through the Middle Ages with Christendom, now secularized and shorn of the pretentions to universal papal sovereignty, in the form of a rights-based political universalism.

John saw all political order as directed to upholding the rights of persons. In this context, the pope introduced a level of political action the encyclical calls “the world community” and which diplomats, journalists and church leaders refer to as “the international community.”

From Pope John XXIII forward, Catholic social teaching has identified the growth of new social groups as a natural dynamic of “socialization” that contributes to the effective unity of the human family. This is a characteristically Catholic insight, rooted in the essential social character of human nature and the communitarian nature of human fulfillment. The Second Vatican Council named the promotion of unity—and, therefore, peace—along with the promotion of human rights, as one of the key ways in which the church serves the world. For the sake of the future welfare of the one human family, Pope John also proposed a novel concept: the universal common good.

The Universal Common Good

From antiquity the common good had been a capstone concept in Catholic social and political theology, referring to the shared good of a whole society or political entity. In earlier times, it had applied to Italian city-states and medieval kingdoms; in modern times to nation-states. Appreciating the greater interdependence of our times and the global problems, like nuclear disarmament, that exceeded the ability of even multilateral treaties to address, “Pacem in Terris” argued that the universal common good should govern such transnational realities. In turn, recognition of the claims of the universal common good entailed the duty to develop institutions of global scope to address global problems.

While some have objected that Pope John’s utopia, as it was called by one Italian journalist, envisioned a single global superstate, his one specific illustration was the United Nations system, a loose network of formal bodies like the General Assembly and the Security Council, the International Court of Justice and autonomous authorities like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, joined with an array of specialized offices that deal with problems like refugees, development, population and special U.N. rapporteurs advising the secretary general or other international bodies on various emerging problems, like religious intolerance. Pope Benedict XVI explained more fully in “Caritas in Veritate” (2009) how a more integrated and effective system of global governance ought to be rooted in subsidiarity, so that the subsidium, or service, of the larger unit supplies for the inadequacies of smaller social units.

Perhaps the most significant recent developments in the implementation of the universal common good since Pope John’s time are the International Criminal Court (2002) and the emerging concept of the Responsibility to Protect. The court is a panel of last resort in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It acts when local jurisdictions have failed to act or are unable to do so. The Responsibility to Protect, an improved, juridical version of humanitarian intervention, is a principle of international law that, like “Pacem in Terris,” advances the idea that all political authority is ordered to upholding the rights of citizens and requires the international community to intervene, with the permission of the Security Council, to prevent human rights violations, enforce their correction and/or provide remedies to affected populations. Before the formulation of the responsiblity to protect, Pope John Paul II appealed during crises in the former Yugoslavia, central Africa and East Timor for what was then known as humanitarian intervention by the international community. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave strong endorsement to R2P, though in subsequent clashes in Libya and Syria, out of concern for the situation of local Christian minorities, the Holy See has proved reluctant to invoke the principle.

The need for regulation of global financial institutions after the collapse of many leading investment houses and the egregious offenses of others provides an example of another set of problems of the sort the universal common good was intended to address. In 2009, as part of his treatment of global governance in “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict XVI cited reform of global finance as a top priority. “Financiers,” he wrote, “must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity, so as not to abuse the sophisticated instruments which can serve to betray the interests of savers.”

In 2011, on the eve of a meeting of the G20, the policymaking group of finance ministers and central bank governors from 20 major economies, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published a groundbreaking study on financial regulation, “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary System in the Context of a Global Public Authority.” It cites “Pacem in Terris” as its inspiration for proposing “an authority over globalization.” The need for “adequate, effective mechanisms equal to its mission,” the council wrote of a world authority to govern the financial system, is greatly increased “in a globalized world…which also displays the existence of monetary and financial markets of a predominantly speculative sort that are harmful for the real economy, especially of weaker countries.”

Work for Peace

Finally, in the intervening half-century since the publication of “Pacem in Terris,” the participation of Catholics, other believers and secular activists in the multifaceted work for peace also has given the church a degree of broad engagement in peacemaking that John desired but could only have vaguely imagined. Leading Catholic groups in this field include Pax Christi International, the Caritas Internationalis network, the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network.

The multiplication of private, voluntary initiatives that often lead the way in meeting humanitarian needs when governments fail to respond is a characteristic of the world situation today. Global politics is characterized by the interlacing of nongovernmental, governmental and intergovernmental initiatives. Recent efforts by the Holy See to integrate Catholic peace and justice activities directly into hierarchical church structures may, in fact, run counter to the trend of civil society initiatives in the broader world. For some, like Catholic Relief Services, however, which is sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and has regularly sought theological guidance, it should not present real problems. But for others accustomed to more autonomy and the support only of friendly bishops, it may require more adjustment.

What needs to be weighed is the potential loss, through Curial centralization, of initiative on the part of the faithful and of speed in the Catholic response to changing events. More explicit attention to evangelization in such Catholic undertakings as envisaged in recent legislation may also diminish the margin of freedom of the faithful for collaboration for the common good with believers of other faiths as well as with men and women of good will. The integration of Catholic organizations directly into the Vatican bureaucracy may also risk reducing the effectiveness of their peacemaking initiatives, as happens when any voluntary group is assimilated by a larger organization.

The experience of 50 years demonstrates that Pope John’s vision of peace was not “an impossible dream.” The integration of human rights into international law and diplomacy, the evolution of structures of global governance with practices like the Responsibility to Protect, and the multiplication of civil-society peacemaking initiatives give substance to Blessed Pope John’s design for a more peaceful world. Nonetheless, the vision of peace in “Pacem in Terris” remains a utopia whose depth of potential and breadth of aspiration are still to be realized. As we think ahead to the centennial of “Pacem in Terris,” 50 years hence, perhaps we can learn from the optimism of Pope John and imagine not only the challenges to peace the world will face five decades from now, but the forces and social inventions that might further the cause of peace.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is a visiting scholar in the theology department of Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass. From 2005 to 2012, he was editor in chief of America.


Carlos Orozco | 4/2/2013 - 9:44pm

Institutions such as the IMF and Word Bank working for "Peace on Earth"? No, vultures is what they are.

Still supporting R2P? Obama and the EU (both Nobel Peace prize winners ) have supported al-Qaeda groups within Libya and Syria. No R2P talk on Palestine or Bahrein, just billions of dollars of "military aid" to their oppressors.

World governance? Are you serious?

As I read the opinion piece, I could not stop thinking of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor: quasi-religious language and symbols at the service of the construction of an atheist world government.

Benjamin Urmston | 4/14/2013 - 2:39pm

Congratulations to Fr. Drew Christiansen for a thorough article on a new direction set by Pacem in Terris, human rights, transnational agencies to deal with global issues, global governance, the principle to protect, the universal common good, the International Criminal Court. Why not go all the way? A true vision of peace must outlaw the war system, stress cooperation, sharing, compassionate listening, and a democratic world federation. Pope Benedict XVI developed a democratic world federation more in detail in No. 67 of Love in Truth. A book coming from a Jewish resident of Israel that sets us in the right direction is Deb Reich, No More Enemies, It's not the people..Its the Paradigm.

Christopher Rushlau | 4/1/2013 - 4:41pm

I see this magazine has a review of the old book by William Manchester about Winston Churchill, "The Last Lion". Churchill said somewhere that the elite give rights, the poor don't demand them as if a simple request was enough to create them.
The current global legal system is dominated by the US and distorted to the measure of the Jewish state in Palestine, a racist (oppressing non-Jews) state occupying stolen land whose implicit objective is the extirpation of the indigenous "tribe" ("gens", hence "genocide"). Specifically, the US is not a party to the ICC. Perhaps this helps explain Benedict's skepticism about Libya and Syria, more than "Christian minorities".
By the way, "subsidiarity", "sitting lower", seems to mean that decisions are made at the lowest possible level of the social hierarchy. As Thomas said, there is divine law, then natural law, than civil law, and finally custom. It is not good, e.g., for states to enforce dress codes as a general rule. When they cross the boundaries of legal competencies, the entire legal enterprise suffers.
This brings me to global financial regulation. I doubt you can carry through on your distinction of speculative and real economies. The question a regulator asks and answers is about sober speculation.
The religious principle I would propose as the basis for social ethics is "I know what I saw", which a friendly professor rendered into Latin for foppery's sake. It came in two versions. Scivi quid videram, meaning I know implicitly what I saw. You see an adult strike a small child so as to leave a mark. You know it's wrong. Cognovi quid videram, meaning I know explicitly what I saw. When I read "Jewish state", I know this entails oppression under the color of law of alleged non-Jews.
It is conceivable that the modern world will dispense with the concept of personal knowledge of either sort, in favor of a party line that is "cybernetic" in its scope, to quote a professor of psychology, comparative religion, and art history at a small Catholic college on the main feature of modern life. You may have read "The Clowns of God" about the Pope who foresees the end of the world in a nuclear catastrophe. I suggest we may be facing that end, not via totalitarian states, even if cloaked in liberalism, like Israel, but by liberalism itself if it bases itself on the idea that the individual person is incapable of knowledge in a way that creates responsibility.
As it says on the side of the capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, "constant vigilance is the price of liberty." If there is nobody, by definition, keeping an eye on the shop, then there will be no goods in the shop.
I will indulge myself and speculate that I might meet the new Pope and he will say to me, "I like you although for the life of me I can't tell you how I know that." Perhaps the economy of grace works the other way. We can see and articulate what is wrong.

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