Pacem in Terris: A Retrospective

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On the 40th anniversary of the publication of "Pacem in Terris," Dr. Peter Steinfelds, a noted historian and commentator on religion reflects on the impact of this universally challenging as well as enduring encyclical.
In his retrospective delivered at the Vincentian Convocation on January 30, 2003 at St. John's University, he notes that in 1963 and in 2003, nations are subject to the law of fear that "Pacem and Terris" tried to overcome, peoples are seeking the human rights that "Pacem in Terris" outlined so extensively, and the question is still open as to whether the world can evolve a global public authority adequate to serve the 'universal common good' that the document so emphatically emphasized. At the "still point" of the war with Iraq, Dr. Steinfelds opines that the "the making of peace demands choices, often hard choices," a multi-dimensional effort, a human order founded on truth, justice, love and freedom, and prayer.

To all people of good will:
According to Pope John XXIII's secretary, Pacem in Terris was most likely conceived during the late night hours of October 23-24, 1962. The world was on the brink of nuclear war, a war that would have killed two-and-half million people in its opening salvo. It was at the very still point of the Cuban Missile Crisis - the night when the pope passed back and forth between his desk and his private chapel, composing a message that would help to bring Kennedy and Khrushchev into agreement and prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction far beyond what we confront today.[1]
The encyclical actually saw the light of day five and half months later, in Holy Week, 1963, forty years ago next April. It was, in effect, the last will and testament of Blessed Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who was already suffering from inoperable cancer and who died less than two months later, on June 3, just minutes after the crowd filling St. Peter's Square had completed a Mass for the sick, the words of dismissal sounding over the loudspeakers and clearly heard in the dying Pope's bedroom: "Ita Missa est."[2]
So distant - the Mass in Latin. Yet so near - nations still subject to the law of fear that Pacem in Terris tried to overcome, peoples still seeking the human rights that Pacem in Terris outlined so extensively, the question still posed if the world can evolve a global public authority adequate to serve the "universal common good" that Pacem in Terris so emphatically urged.
Pacem in Terris was embraced by non-Catholic readers as no previous encyclical had been. One reason was the Pope himself. When Hannah Arendt later wrote about him, she titled her essay "A Christian on St. Peter's Chair," as though that were in itself an astounding miracle, if not a contradiction in terms.[3]
Another reason for the welcome was the desperate need for some resounding word that could break, like a pickax, the frozen ice of the Cold War.
A third reason was the surprise, sometimes mixed with a bit of condescension, that the Catholic church and especially the papacy, should be strongly affirming basic rights and freedoms it had so often denounced or at best minimized. Remember, this was two-and-a-half years before the Second Vatican Council would promulgate, not without considerable delays and difficulty, Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Liberty.
Finally there was the fact that Pope John had himself reached out. This was the first encyclical to be addressed not only to the bishops, clergy, and faithful but "to all men of good will."
So near - and yet so distant. I hesitate to think what might occur if I addressed you as "all men of good will." This degree would undoubtedly be immediately revoked. And probably that would be getting off lightly.
40 Years Ago-- Signs of the Times:
It is worth noting that among the "three distinctive characteristics" of the age,[4] the first was the arrival of working people into the political, social, and cultural mainstream, something that had undoubtedly occurred in post-Depression, post-World War II Europe and North America far more than the rest of the world.
The second was that "women are now taking part in public life" and demanding "rights befitting a human person both in domestic and public life." The encyclical also stressed the universality and equality of rights of all people and included, in its extensive list of them, "the right to set up a family, with equal rights and duties for man and woman, and also the right to follow a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life."[5] I am sure that Pope John meant to break new ground for women. I doubt that he recognized just how combustible those various notions could be, when placed in proximity.
Also among those distinctive characteristics of the age was the end of colonial rule, the recognition of newly independent nations, the rejection of ancient assumptions about human superiority or inferiority on grounds of social status, political privilege, wealth, sex, or race. "Racial discrimination," the encyclical declared, "can in no way be accepted." Again, remember that this was five months before the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington and much longer before Congress passed major civil rights legislation.
The Nature of Encyclicals
Having lightly sketched, I hope in very positive terms, these aspects of Pope John and Pacem in Terris, I have to make a terrible confession. I don't like encyclicals. No, that is not quite right. I merely do not seem to like encyclicals as much as many fellow Catholics do.
Marx called religion the opiate of the people. Perhaps encyclicals are the opiate of the faithful. So often they operate to stifle thought, not stimulate it. We mine them for proof texts, to back up our own political or religious opinions with papal authority. We celebrate what we like. We minimize what we don't. They either make us lazy, or they turn us into lawyers.
Today, for example, we are all obliged, as citizens, as Christians, or simply as people of conscience, to reach some moral judgment on the foreign policy of the United States and the possible - many would say likely - war in Iraq. With what information I can gather, I believe that such a war would be unwise and immoral.
I welcome the help my religious tradition and my religious leaders provide me in approaching this kind of decision. But I cannot pass responsibility for it off onto them, or onto a Pope, living or dead, or onto an encyclical.
The aura of a papal pronouncement does not absolve me from the hard work of seeking facts and weighing opinions, especially perhaps the opinions of those who are of a contrary view. I certainly cannot lean on a title alone, even one like Peace on Earth, to give me leverage over them or to pretend that they, too, might not be able to find some support in the text.
As you well know, papal encyclicals quite frequently have organizational consequences as well as theological and spiritual messages. That means they are drafted and revised by several hands, who can round off the sharp corners and introduce qualifications and loopholes so that important perspectives and constituencies in the church are not peremptorily excluded.
Encyclicals are less like marching orders and more like traffic signals or railroad switches. They give green, red, or yellow lights to this or that current within the church. They put some groups or outlooks full speed on the main track while shuffling others off onto sidings.
Toward Peace on Earth: 1963
Take Pacem in Terris. It was written as Pope John struggled to overcome the opposition entrenched within the Vatican, indeed within the whole church, to contacts with Moscow, an opposition that suspected détente as a dangerous compromise of principle and relaxation of vigilance.[6]
Paragraphs 157-60, for example, contain the important warning against confusing error with the person who errs. The latter, the Pope says, "is always and above all a human being and ... retains his dignity as a human person." These passages about cooperation with other Christians, with non-believers, and even with movements arising from false tenets had significant implications for religious freedom and ecumenism, but on the narrower stage of politics in Italy and other nations, they gave the green light to the apertura a sinistra, working alliances between Catholics and certain socialists.
I mentioned the warm reception Pacem in Terris received outside the church. Two years after the encyclical appeared, in February 1965, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions made it the centerpiece of an imposing conference. Twenty two hundred scholars, clergy, statesmen, and peace activists attended, along with hundreds of reporters. Speakers and panelists included U Thant, the Secretary General of the UN, which had just gone into extended recess, unable to resolve a dispute about payment of dues, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, George Kennan, Abba Eban, Eugene McCarthy, the editor of Pravda, and a host of European, Asian, and African leaders whose names were as well known then as Jacques Chirac's and Nelson Mandela's are today.[7]
Robert Hutchins, once the enfant terrible president of the University of Chicago and now the Center's head, opened the conference by warning that "this is no time for pious platitudes" and wondering whether "the reason Pacem in Terris was applauded throughout the world was that it was so general as to be meaningless, or so vague that any partisan could put his own meaning into it." Hutchins himself did not believe so. The Center, he said, considered the encyclical "one of the most profound and significant documents of our age."
"The Pope," Hutchins said, "consigns nuclear arms, nationalism, colonialism, racism, and non-constitutional regimes to the wastebasket of history. He rejects the devil theory of politics. He asserts the unfashionable doctrine that 'the same moral law which governs relations between individual human beings serves also to regulate the relations of political communities with each other.'" [8]
The first speaker the next morning was the theologian Paul Tillich. He was respectful. He called the encyclical "an important event in the history of religious and political thought." But he questioned some of its basic premises. The Pope had addressed men of good will, but Tillich stressed the ambiguity of human nature and of all human will, good or bad. The encyclical had called for resistance against violations of human dignity. But all such resistance, Tillich argued, even without arms, risks escalation and destructive consequences, and ultimately there are also "situations in which nothing short of war can defend or establish the dignity of the person." Tillich was speaking as the refugee from Nazism that he was.
Tillich also questioned one of the premises Hutchins had hailed. The encyclical, he suggested, proposed too easy an equation of the moral law and judgments appropriate to individuals with those appropriate to political groups.[9]
In this and in other ways he was posing a tragic view against Pope John's optimistic one. He was not alone. Reinhold Niebuhr had welcomed Pacem in Terris for its treatment of rights but found that it breathed "a Pelagian, rather than an Augustinian, spirit" and would serve better, he wrote, "as a prod rather than as a guide" to statesmen.[10] John Courtney Murray, too, found the encyclical overly optimistic.[11] So did radical theologians, the forerunners of liberation theology, who felt that John XXIII had altogether too much confidence in liberal welfare-state capitalism.[12]
Listening to Tillich at age 23, I felt that he had injected some sobering realism into the high-minded Pacem in Terris discussion. The encyclical had outlined a whole array of goals to go into the making of peace: human rights, equal respect for nations, economic development, disarmament, an evolving world authority, the replacement of fear with trust. The problem, of course, is that such goals may not coincide, not at least in the kind of time spans that frame human decision making. Justice and rights have often been gained and defended only through arms. One human right may pull against another. The drive for equal respect for nations may conflict with the establishment of a world authority. Economic development of one region may retard that of another or inspire fear rather than trust. The making of peace demands choices, often hard choices.[13]
Tillich's speech was received perfunctorily. Many were confused by his introduction of ironies, complications, and doubts. I recently reread it, and it holds up well. But so does Pacem in Terris.
Toward Peace on Earth: 2003
Independence and Interdependence
Forty years later, the world is of course very different. The emergence of independent nations from European empires, even the Soviet empire, is virtually complete. The bipolar world of the Cold War is gone, although a continental-size version still exists between India and Pakistan in South Asia. There is one super power, torn between super responsibility and super arrogance, perhaps super vulnerability. Instead of the nuclear balance of terror, there is a new asymmetrical terrorism, where proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and new, non-state actors can combine in a way that even the old law of fear may not be capable of deterring.
What Pope John said forty years ago about human rights and liberal constitutional regimes has not lost its relevance, and what he said about ethnic assertion and conflict has become only more relevant. Today, he would surely add, as Pope John Paul II has, warnings about religious claims and their enlistment and manipulation for political purposes. Today he would surely specify environmental issues among the elements of a "universal common good."
Role of the United Nations
But the drama being played out before us these very weeks unavoidably draws our attention to his plea for the development of a universal public authority commensurate to the problems of economic globalization and the promotion of that "universal common good." The analysis is brief, deductive, and simply poses the imperative for such an authority over against the problems it presents without offering any resolution. It comes down to earth in his suggestion that the United Nations and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the first steps in the development of such an authority.
The United Nations' capacity, present and potential, as this public authority is one of the things at the center of the Iraq drama. Yet when one reads Pope John's description of that "public authority, having world-wide power and endowed with the proper means for the efficacious pursuit of its objective,"[14] one recognizes that today there is another claimant to the role - the United States, not just as leader of the free world confronting and limited by another superpower-led bloc, but now acting on behalf of the safety of the whole world, as the President said the other night, and on behalf of the international community, as the Secretary of State has said, as well, they always add, of America's own security.
This rivalry may be unacknowledged - it emerges less from words than from the logic of the war on terror and the promulgation of military doctrines amounting to global police powers - but it too has been at the center of the recent drama. Like it or not, what has galvanized opinion in other parts of the world is not just the potential threat of Iraq but the potential threat of the United States. Pope John saw this problem forty years ago when he warned that the world authority he envisaged "must be set up by common accord, and not imposed by force." Effective power had to be combined with "sincere and real impartiality."
"There would be reason to fear," he wrote, "that a supra-national or world-wide public authority, imposed by force by the more powerful nations might be an instrument of one-side interest; and even should this not happen, it would be difficult for it to avoid all suspicion of partiality in actions."[15]
Like all rivalries this one is complicated. Those of us who consider that fulfillment of United Nations agreements are vital to the future of that public authority and who choose the prolongation of the inspection process over any imminent military action must admit that without the world-wide power of the United States and the Administration's threat to use it, the United Nations would have almost certainly shirked its obligations and Iraq almost certainly obstructed inspections. The promise of the UN as Pacem in Terris's meaningful though embryonic world authority is being both advanced and impeded by American policy.
This need not have been the case. Since the fall of Communism, both Democratic and Republican Administrations have squandered a dozen years during which a new framework of international institutions could have been nurtured, as was done in the years following World War II. To do so, we would have had to make that a priority rather than an afterthought. We would have had to show the "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" our Declaration of Independence invoked. We would have had to moderate our reluctance to submit any aspect of our unprecedented power and national sovereignty to international limitation. We would have had to take the lead in devoting that power to works like the AIDS relief fund that the President, I fear belatedly, announced on Tuesday.
And we would have had to heed Pope John's repeated admonitions that superiority, in nations no less than individuals, creates an obligation to assist and share, not a license to rule.[16] Nations' sense of their dignity, equality, and cultural excellence, does not rest on their economic and military weight. They will rightfully resists, he points out, "an authority imposed by force" or "in whose creation they had no part."[17]
It may be a weakness in Pacem in Terris that the Pope did not order the multiple aspects of peace making or address the problem of resolving conflicts between them. But in insisting that peace does require this multi-dimensional effort, that disarmament and human rights and economic development and sensitivity to the dignity of weaker nations and today, I am sure he would add, the campaigns against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction all go together, he was surely right.
Human Order: Truth, Justice, Love and Freedom
There are four words running like a mantra through Pacem in Terris: truth, justice, love, and freedom. The Pope defined "an order that is genuinely human" as "an order whose foundation is truth, whose measure and objective is justice, whose driving force is love, and whose method of attainment is freedom."[18] Peace, he warned, would be "an empty-sounding word" unless it rested on "an order founded on truth, built according to justice, vivified and integrated by love, and put into practice in freedom.[19] He hailed the those magnanimous people who strove to establish new relationships in human society "with truth, justice, love, and freedom." [20]
I think that I will repeat these words as a kind of prayer and a touchstone of my political thinking in the coming days: truth, justice, love, and freedom. I hope that you at St. John's make them - truth, justice, love, and freedom - the watchwords for your further deliberations on this great encyclical.
Thank you very much.

[1] Peter Hebblethwaite, Pope John XXIII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books), 1987, pp. 446, 447. Hebblethwaite actually writes that "Capovilla [Archbishop Loris F. Capovilla, Pope John's secretary] dates the origin of Pacem in Terris to October 25, 1962, when Pope John was working on his message"; but previous page reports, as do many public documents, that the message was issued on October 24 and composed during the preceding night.
[2] Hebblethwaite, p. 504.
[3] Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Harvest Book), 1968, pp. 57-89, originally published in The New York Review of Books in 1965.
[4] Paragraphs 40-44.
[5] Paragraph 15.
[6] See Hebblethwaite, Chapter 23, pp. 467-88.
[7] Edward Reed, ed., Peace on Earth: Pacem in Terris: The proceedings on an International Convocation on the Requirements of Peace, Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (Pocket Books, 1965).
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., pp. 13-23.
[10] Quoted in Charles C. Brown, Niebuhr and His Age (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002), p. 226. His reference is to "Pacem in Terris: Two Views," Christianity & Crisis (May 13, 1963), pp. 81, 83.
[11] That is the view of David J. O'Brien and Thomas A. Shannon in the introduction to the text of Pacem in Terris in their anthology, Renewing the Earth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books, 1977), p. 123. They write that Murray, like Niebuhr, found the encyclical "too idealistic and impractical" but give no reference. The Murray bibliography in the collection of his articles, Religious Liberty (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993) edited by J. Leon Hooper, S.J., lists an article by Murray, "Things Old and New in 'Pacem in Terris,'" America (April 27, 1963), pp 612-14.
[12] It is easy to find this view, sometimes stated explicitly, sometimes between the lines, in Donald Dorr, Option for the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), Chapter 5, "Pope John XXIII - A New Direction?" pp. 116, especially pp. 100-02.
[13] I offered this analysis and these impressions in "Peace and Reality," Commonweal (March 19, 1965), pp. 785-86.
[14] Paragraph 138.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Paragraphs 87-88.
[17] Paragraph 138.
[18] Paragraph 149.
[19] Paragraph 167.
[20] Paragraph 163.
* Peter Steinfels, Ph.D. is an historian, journalist, and author who served as Senior Religion Correspondent at The New York Times from 1988-1997. He continues a biweekly column, "Beliefs" in The Times dealing with religion and ethics. He is a consultant to "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," a PBS program and recently co-directed a three-year research project on "American Catholics in the Public Square" for the Commonweal Foundation. Dr. Steinfels joined the staff of Commonweal magazine in 1964 and was editor from 1984-88. He is also published in Nation, Dissent, and New Republic. Dr. Steinfels is the author of The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing American Politics (1979), A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (2003), and co-editor of Death Inside Out: The Hastings Center Report. He has been a visiting Professor of History at Georgetown University and of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He holds a Ph.D. in European History from Columbia University along with several honorary degrees including a Doctor of Humane Letters that was bestowed by St. John's University at this Convocation. He and his wife, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, were recipients of the 2003 Notre Dame Laetare Medal for service to Church and society.


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Food for Thought

A Catholic university is called to become an evermore effective instrument of cultural progress for individuals as well as for society. Included among its research activities, therefore, will be a study of serious contemporary problems in areas such as the dignity of human life, the promotion of justice for all, the quality of personal and family life, the protection of nature, the search for peace and political stability, a more just sharing in the world’s resources and a new economic and political order that will better serve the human community at a national and international level.

Pope John Paul II,
Ex Corde Ecclesiae (32)