Pacem in Terris at 50

On April 11 we will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Pacem in Terris ( Peace on Earth) which appeared in 1963, just months after the Cuban missile crisis. Pope John had served as an important mediator between the Americans and Russians during that crisis. Later Premier Kruschev said of John: " In regard to what Pope John did for peace, his was humanistic assistance that will be recorded in history". In effect, the two peasants ( Kruschev and Roncalli) found a way to avert a war, possibly a nuclear war, over Cuba.

In a brilliant commentary on Pacem in Terris, Drew Christiansen says of it that it is the " fullest general treatment of political morality found in modern Catholic social teacching. " He also ntoes that :" As a platform for Catholic social action( on behalf of human rights), PT may be rivaled only by Leo XIIII's Rerum Novarum which gave impetus to the Catholic labor movement. For following the publication of the encyclical, Catholics in Chile, South Africa, South Korea, Poland, Guatemala, El Salvador, The Philippines, Mexico, East Timor and elsewhere marched at the forefront of human rights movements."


The document consists of five parts. Part I represents a major breakthrough in Catholic social teaching by listing the universal and inviolable human rights of the human person, constituting the protection of human dignity. Among the rights listed was a right to religious liberty ( the right to worship according to one'w own conscience). Undoubtedly, this had a positive impact on Vatican Council II which was debating a decree on religious liberty. Part I also gave positive assessment to several contemporary social trends: workers' rights, the emancipation of women, the independence of new states emerging out of colonialism.

Part II traced the divine origin of authority and begins a survey of the characteristics of the present day. Part III deals with the relations between states, appealing to the rubrics of justice, truth and active solidarity. It also addresses the need for disarmament. Again, Part III looks to the signs of the times and notes the demand of people to end recourse to war and to find resolution of conflict through negotiation. Part IV treats of world community. It evokes the new concept of " a universal common good" and conjectures the need for a new level of political authority to address that universal common good. Part V urges full engagement of Catholics in public life. It strongly endorses lay iniative and allows Catholics to cooperate with non-Catholics in social and economic affairrs.

As should be apparent, Pacem in Terris laid the groundwork for one of Vatican II's most important documents, The Church in the Modern World, which takes up the three important shifts in Catholic thinking about the person and society found in Pacem in Terris: (1) A fundamental Catholic embrace of the human rights' tradition as found, for example, in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Catholic rights talk, however, tends to be more communitarian than the rights talk in the liberal, individualistic, Enlightenment tradition. It links rights to duties and speaks of the prime virtue of solidarity; ( 2) An appeal to the signs of the times ( which gets further developed in The Church in the Modern World). Pacem in Terris was the first social encyclical to try to discern a method for reading the signs of the times. Such a reading forces Catholic social teaching to be in dialogue with the social sciences--a major breakthrough; ( 3) In its moral teaching, Pacem in Terris goes beyond appeals only to moral principles to call for a concern for virtue, attitudes and dispositions.

For those interested in the debates now occuring in the United States about immigration the list of Catholic rights is illuminating. It includes both the right to emigrate and to immigrate for just cause. Catholic social thought has also been very strong on the rights of migrants and refugees. Drew Christiansen takes up the teaching of Pacem in Terris on this point: " The church's assertion of the rights of refugees and migrants generally is one of the strongest in political theory. Church teaching is almost unique in affirming the right of reffugees to integration andd citizenship. Founded on the belief in the unity of one human family under God, the Church's advocacy for admission and integration of refugees and the freedom of movement of migrants puts it at odds with state-centered approaches to the movement of peoples, nation-centered conceptions of the common good, as well as nativist and racist ideologies."

Pacem in Terris stresses that public authorities have a special obligation to serve the less fortunate and those least able to assert their voice in public life. Because authority always comes from God, political authority is also limited and constrained. Authorities, the encyclical argues, should mainly lead by persuasion rather than coercion and the instilling of fear. No law contrary to the moral order is binding on citizens. The dynamic understanding of international relations found in the encyclical downplays the absolute appeal to state sovereignty or non-intervention when there is question of protecting human rights. Without any doubt, Pacem in Terris was a watershed encyclical in the Catholic social teaching tradition.

It received wide attention by non-Catholic critics, including Walter Lippmann who applauded it. The United Nations held a three day special conference on the document. No social encyclical since it has gained such non-Catholic attention but, as I noted in the beginning, part of the reception came from two special sources at the time: John XXIII's conspicuous mediating role in averting the Cuban missile crisis and the on-going discussion of many of the same issues raised in John's encyclical in various debates raging in Vatican Council II. Many noted that the pope had established the case for religious liberty so unmistakably and unconditionally that they not see how the Council could not follow his argument. In fact, a year or so later, The Council did issue its own Decree on Religious Liberty.

Some social encyclicals are best read in historical perspective. This is somewhat true also for Pacem in Terris which may have downplayed the role of sin in public life but the document still bears reading today and is still illuminating about issues of international relations. So, read it!

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Vince Killoran
5 years 9 months ago
This is indeed one of the most important documents of the 20th century. I teach at a four year liberal arts (secular) college and assign PACEM IN TERRIS on a regular basis.


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