Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Pacem In Terris

The Catholic Church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), a papal encyclical issued by Pope John XXIII on April 11th, 1963. This encyclical had a momentous impact on the Catholic Church’s view of the world. It is a living document that directly inspired the work of Development and Peace, which was founded four years after its promulgation.

Pacem in Terris recognized the growing rights of workers, the advancement of women, the spread of democracy and an affirmation that war was not the way to obtain justice. It was the first encyclical addressed, not just to Catholics, but “to all people of good will,” and laid the foundations for the attainment of a just and lasting peace.

Pacem in Terris was released only 15 years after the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and is often called the ‘first declaration of human rights’ by the Catholic magisterium.  It became a social teaching accessible to millions of people.

Pope John XXIII also wrote this encyclical at a time when the world was in the midst of the Cold War. Pacem in Terris came in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, which brought the superpowers to the brink of a third world war, and terrified people around the world with the spread of nuclear weapons.  The Pope was very distressed to see this arms race, particularly the enormous cost and resources devoted to it, and appealed for a process of disarmament by every nation.

It was a prophetic moment for John XXIII, as he urged dialogue to end what was one of the most dangerous confrontations the world has seen and offered a message of peace to superpower leaders. His role in the resolution of the crisis has been overlooked, but it was crucial. It helped move the world in peaceful direction, consistent with the Vatican II Council that was then taking place.

The encyclical starts out on the building blocks of human dignity and human relationships.  From these core values, it explains how each country has the right to existence, to self-development, and the means to achieve their development. Minority groups should be protected and be allowed to live in association with the other peoples within a state.

In it, John XXIII also repeated the appeal he made in his previous encyclical, Mater et Magistra, that every nation must assist other nations in economic development.  The continued integration of the world economy has meant that no state can pursue its own interests in isolation. Growing economic interdependence requires cooperation.  John XXIII made a plea for Catholics to assist non-Christians and non-Catholics. The encyclical supported the objectives of the U.N., as it promotes peace and protects human rights.

Pacem in Terris paved the way for strong involvement of the Catholic Church and faith-based organizations in the promotion of human rights, justice, peace-building and peaceful resolution of conflicts. In the years that followed its release, Bishops’ conferences created many human rights centres, and Catholic peace movements sprung up all over the world.   It is a text we can appreciate better now than fifty years ago, given the prophetic vision of the world it presents, which at the time was heading towards globalization and possible nuclear annihilation.

Pacem in Terris was signed by Pope John XXIII a month before he died.  It was his legacy to the Vatican II Council, which he had convened to open the windows of the Church onto the modern world. In the half-century since the issue of the encyclical in 1963, the world has undergone dramatic changes in technology and the globalization of every aspect of human existence, and human rights awareness has been institutionalized in practically every country’s constitution. Yet, sadly, armed conflicts and wars continue to afflict many countries. 

The encyclical ends with an exhortation to uphold the four pillars of peace – truth, justice, love and freedom – virtues that need to be pursued and concretized. As a living document, how do we keep the message of Pacem in Terris alive?  Dr. Scott Appleby, Director of the Catholic Peace Network, outlined some of the challenges ahead in his summation at last year’s Pontifical Justice and Peace seminar, which was attended by members of Caritas Internationalis in preparation for Pacem et Terris and Vatican II celebrations:

  1. The Church affirms in this document that we should move beyond “negative peace” to a just peace. The goal is not simply to end wars, but to rebuild social relations that have been broken or choked with suspicion and prejudice. This is relevant to many countries that are in civil war and where Development and Peace is active in assisting victims of all forms violence, such as in the Congo, Nigeria, Colombia, etc.
  2. Church groups working for peace need to work with other partners and institutions, including government agencies and international organizations. We also need to expand our peace constituency – i.e., among local communities and civil society groups that can be crucial advocates for a just and lasting peace. In Mindanao in the Philippines, for instance, the Bishops-Ulama Conference, involves Catholic and Protestant bishops and Muslim Ulama as partners in dialogue for the past 16 years.  This was seen as an unprecedented model of how religious leaders can tap into their religions not as sources of conflict but rather as resources for peace.
  3. There is a need for the Church to be aware of new forms of social conflict brought about by human trafficking, environmental destruction, scandalous economic inequality and violence against women. There is a new consciousness and appreciation of economic, cultural and social rights, which includes the rights of indigenous minorities, the right to a healthy environment, and even the right of succeeding generations to a sustainable environment.
  4. A distinct aspect of Catholic peace-building is the call for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation, and Church-related peace-builders must work first with the victims of violence and the most vulnerable women and children; they must accompany internally displaced persons; they must be present to the oppressed even as they take risks in confronting the oppressor; and they have to strive to broker peace by providing spaces for dialogue. It was in this way that Development and Peace contributed to the justice and peace work of creating a new country in East Timor after its long bloody history of violence and destruction.

As the church celebrates the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s prophetic vision has affected global affairs by promoting human rights and just governance. The challenges set forth in it remain, and there can be no talk of peace without development and, therefore, without justice.

These are the themes which have been taken up by Pope Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now by Pope Francis. In his Easter address, he challenged today’s Church leaders to go out into the streets and into a world that is “torn apart by violence… still divided by greed looking for easy gain, wounded by selfishness which threatens human life and the family, selfishness that continues in human trafficking, the most extensive form of slavery in this twenty first century…”

Today, we are reminded once again of the concluding words in Pacem in Terris: “Peace is but an empty word, if it does not rest upon… an order that is founded on truth, built up on justice, nurtured and animated by charity, and brought into effect under the auspices of freedom.”