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.
One can hear in the Pope’s words a contemporaneous a echo of John of Salisbury and his broad definition of the function of the Prince, which is "to fight for justice and for the freedom of the people." Only here it is not the question of a Prince, but of the whole order of constitutional and statutory law of public administration. The first function of the state and of all its officers is to guarantee the juridical order, that is to say, the whole order of human rights and duties whose roots are in the human person as situated in the contemporary world.
One of the most striking aspects of the encyclical is the generosity, the breadth and the contemporaneity of the Pope's statement with regard to the rights and duties of the human person. An outstanding instance of his full acceptance of modern progress is his affirmation of the place of woman in society as conceived in the world of today. Even more important is his strong insistence on racial equality.
In the past, papal pronouncements on political and social order have always been suspended, as it were, from three great words—truth, justiceand charity. These three great words are repeated in this encyclical, and the demands of each are carefully particularized. But a fourth word is added, with an insistence that is new at the same time that it is traditional. I mean the word freedom.
Freedom is a basic principle of political order; it is also the political method. The whole burden of the encyclical is that the order for which the postmodern world is looking cannot be an order that is imposed by force, or sustained by coercion, or based on fear—which is the most coercive force that can be brought to bear on man.
By sharply accenting this theme, the Pope clearly takes sides against movements on the march today that would organize the world and create an order in it on the basis of force and not on the basis of the principle, which we are proud to call American as well as Christian, that the ordering forces in the world must be the forces of "freedom under law." These forces of freedom and for Freedom emerge from the depths of the human person, which in the end is the creative force in human affairs.
The summation of the Pope's thought is in the sentence which asserts that all order, if it is to be qualified as reasonable and human, must be "founded on truth, built according to justice, vivified and integrated by charity, and put into practice in freedom." Elsewhere the Pope makes clear that freedom is the method for the "realization" of order in human affairs as well as a goal of the order itself.
In another respect the Pope manifests his clear intention to be guided by the traditional axiom by which Leo XIII was likewise guided, “vetera novis augere,”the principle that the Catholic tradition is a growing tradition, a tradition of progress, which requires that the "old things" be constantly affirmed at the same time they are completed and complemented in organic fashion by "new things."
I refer here to the distinction that the Pope draws between “historical movements that have economic, social, cultural or political ends” and the "false philosophical teachings regarding the nature, origin and destiny of the universe and of man" which originally strong animated these movements. The basis of the distinction is the fact that "those movements, insofar as they conform to the dictates of right reason and are interpreters of the lawful aspirations of the human person, contain elements that are positive and deserving of approval." It is therefore possible to divorce these movements, in all that is of practical merit in them, from the erroneous doctrines with which they were historically allied.
I am not sure just what "historical movement" the Pope chiefly had in mind. I suspect that it was Continental socialism, whose primitive inspiration was largely atheist. Perhaps the Pope's distinction has some relevance to the whole Marxist movement, but here its application would have carefully to be made. In any case, I should think that the distinction may be given full application in regard of the 18th- and 19th-century movements toward political freedom. So applied, the distinction dissolves the whole problematic of Leo XIII, whose great conflict was with Continental, sectarian Liberalism. In his time, he was not able to draw a distinction between the animating principle of this movement, which was that of the "outlaw conscience" that recognized no authority higher than itself and no law that was not of its own making, and the free political institutions of which this movement was the protagonist.
At his distance from the 19th-century state of the question, which is now outworn, Pope John XXIII is able boldly to make this important distinction. The significance of its making will, I think, be felt particularly in regard of an urgent problem that continues to face us, namely, the problem of an organic development of traditional principles touching the relations of Church and State in such wise that we may come into possession of what we still lack—a complete and unitary Catholic doctrine capable of prudent application in the political and religious conditions of our own time. A further welcome contribution to this end is the Pope's unprecedentedly broad affirmation of the "right to worship God publicly and privately" as a "right conscience" dictates.
I should say a word about the Pope's thought with regard to the constitution of a world community. He is clearly in the tradition of Pius XII, whose insistence on the need for a juridical organization of the international community is well known. John XXIII seems to develop the thought of Pius XII by his call for "a public authority, having world-wide power and enfowed with the proper means for the efficacious pursuit of its objective, which is the universal common good in concrete form." This authority must, he adds, "be set up by common accord and not imposed by force." Again the principle of freedom, as a principle and as a method, is affirmed.
The Pope proposes this goal in the spirit of "confident hope" that is the dominant spirit of the whole encyclical. But it will not be clear to many, including myself, how this hope is concretely to be realized, given the fact that no moral or political consensus presently exists within the total international community that would furnish the basis for the existence of such a public authority and for the effective exercise of its powers. It is clear that the Pope is intimately aware that our postmodern era is characterized by what he calls a "pronounced dynamism" toward change of all kinds. It is also clear that he has most correctly indicated the right direction of change toward the remedy of a "structural defect" in the international community. For the rest, it is clear that he puts his hope in the efforts of those, who are still "not many" but whose numbers must grow, who are "scientifically competent, technically capable and skilled in the practice of their professions," and who will be able therefore to "create a synthesis between scientific, technical and professional elements on the one hand and spiritual values on the other."
His hope, therefore, is not utopian idealism. It is possible of realization. It seems to be sustained, in the last analysis, by the confidence that breathes through the whole encyclical—a confidence in the power of the human person, in association, to "insure that world events follow a reasonable and human course." It is therefore a hope that no reasonable man can fail to share, no matter what the difficulties in the way may be.
The encyclical will be perhaps most closely scrutinized for the guidance that it may give to Christians and to men of good will in regard of all that we mean by the Cold War. There will be those who will think, as I do, that we have been given only limited guidance. The Pope did not choose to deal with an aspect of the matter that has been carefully covered by his predecessors, notably Pius XI. I mean the profundity of the current crisis of history out of whose depths the Cold War itself has arisen.
The Pope has indeed made it entirely clear that the future must not be permitted to belong to the conception of political and social order that is inherent in the Communist revolution. He declares himself openly against "political regimes which do not guarantee for individual citizens a sufficient sphere of freedom within which their souls are allowed to breathe humanly." The encyclical shows no disposition to come to terms, in some manner of false peace, with the doctrinal content of the world revolution, especially its conception of Promethean man as the creator of himself and the rightful single ruler of the world. There is no encouragement in the encyclical for those among us who take a shallow or mistaken view of the depths of evil that are inherent in Communist ideology. On the other hand, there may be some warrant for the thought that the spirit of confident hope which the Pontiff courageously embraces fails to take realistic account of the fundamental schism in the world today.
On this difficult subject, about which there will be much argument, I have only one suggestion to offer as a help toward an understanding of the encyclical. I think the Pope deeply understands the disastrous extent to which men today are gripped by the myth of history which the Marxists have so diligently inculcated. In many ways, a deterministic view of history has gained much ground among us. In this view, man has lost command of his own destiny on this earth; his destiny is determined by the events of history, and he is himself powerless to control these events. The conclusion is that history today is surely and certainly carrying man toward catastrophe with an inevitability against which man is helpless.
I think that the Pope wishes to take a strong stand against this myth of history as the master of man. I think this intention stands behind his confident assertion that "the fundamental principle on which our present peace depends must be replaced by another." Today the principle of such peace as we enjoy is simply naked fear. No one will deny that this principle must be replaced by another. The difficulty arises when the Pope goes on to say that we not only must, but also can, move forward to a new and more solid basis of peace. We must not, he seems to be saying, feel ourselves to be trapped in history, unable to change its course, unable to control world events, unable to avoid the disaster that waits for us if the world continues on its present course. At least in this respect, the Pope will command the agreement of all men of good will who believe that there are energies in the free human spirit whereby man may fulfill his destiny on earth, which is to be, not God, but the image of God. All men who believe in God are agreed that He is the Master of history. Man, therefore, manifests himself as the image of God chiefly by his intelligent, confident efforts to master the course of historical events and direct it toward the common good of the peoples of earth.