Pacem in Terris 40 Years Later

Pope John Paul II’s message for this year’s World Day of Peace, Jan. 1, 2003, anticipates the 40th anniversary of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical Pacem in Terris in April. At a time when the world seems more troubled than at any time since the collapse of Communism in 1989, the message is notable for its endorsement of Pope John XXIII’s visionary agenda for peace. Published two months before Pope John’s death and only a little more than six months into the Second Vatican Council, Pacem in Terris may well have had as much influence on the church’s presence in the world as any piece of church teaching in the 20th century, including the council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.”



John XXIII revolutionized Catholic social teaching by defining the substance of peace in terms of the promotion, safeguarding and defense of human rights. As a result, the church’s own social ministry took a dramatic turn, actively defending human rights in conflicted societies from Chile, through Central America to the Philippines and South Korea—almost anywhere there was a sizable Catholic presence.

Beginning with Chile’s Committee for Peace (later the Vicariate for Solidarity) in 1973, Catholic human rights offices and justice and peace commissions did much of the early leg work in establishing the international human rights movement. Catholic leaders from Poland’s Lech Walesa to South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung and East Timor’s Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo received the Nobel Peace Prize for their courageous work in defense of the rights of their countrymen. Others won the martyr’s crown. Among the martyrs for human dignity may be counted El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, Guatemala’s Bishop Juan Gerardi and the seven victims murdered last September at the Justice and Peace Office in Lahore, Pakistan.

Most remarkable in Pope John Paul II’s appreciation of the encyclical is his embrace of its vision of peace. Noting that the Berlin Wall had been erected two years earlier and that only six months earlier, during the Cuban missile crisis, the world had escaped a close call with nuclear war, the pope writes, “Pope John XXIII did not agree with those who claimed peace was impossible. With his encyclical, peace in all its demanding truth came knocking on both sides of the [Berlin] Wall and of all the other dividing walls. The encyclical spoke to everyone of their belonging to the one human family, and shone a light on the shared aspiration of people everywhere to live in security, justice and hope for the future.”

“Looking at the present and into the future with eyes of faith and reason,” writes the pope, “Blessed John XXIII discerned deeper currents at work” than the international experts of the day. From that faith perspective, Pope John Paul 40 years later continues to uphold the more visionary and controversial ideas advanced in Pacem in Terris. Most of all, he continues to regard the United Nations, the whipping boy of many, as a necessary requirement of “the universal common good.” “Is this not the time,” he asks, “for all to work together for a new constitutional organization of the human family, truly capable of ensuring peace and harmony between peoples, as well as their integral development?”

Pope John Paul also rejects the notion that international relations ought to be a “free zone,” governed by interest and power, “in which the moral law holds no sway.” He levels criticism as well at the bankrupt regional and world politics affecting the Middle East and the Holy Land. “Until those in positions of responsibility,” he writes, “undergo a veritable revolution in the way they use their power and go about securing their people’s welfare, it is difficult to imagine how progress toward peace can be made.”

In the Holy Land, as elsewhere, peace is threatened “from commitments made and then not honored.” The pope lays special emphasis on the lack of implementation of “promises made to the poor.” He does not specify the commitments he has in mind, but they are not hard to identify. Agreed targets for foreign development assistance, for debt relief, and for landmine removal and postwar reconstruction from Mozambique to Kosovo to Afghanistan have been repeatedly underfunded by donor nations, including the United States.

The message’s title captures Pope John Paul’s intent. It reads “Pacem in Terris: A Permanent Commitment.” The challenge is for statesmen, political leaders and ordinary citizens, Catholics and people of good will, to make good on Pope John’s vision of peace. At a time when a war against terror threatens to erode their resolve, they are called steadfastly to defend human rights, bolster global institutions, aid the poor and build a culture of peace.

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