11 April 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical, Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”). When this document was released in 1963, the tradition of modern Catholic social teaching was already seventy-years old. Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the first modern social encyclical, appeared in 1891. In Pacem in Terris, John XXIII broke with precedent by addressing the document not only to the Catholic community, as was the practice, but also to all people of good will. The language and content of the encyclical was crafted to engage a wide-audience and to foster conversation and joint action for the common good.
With this wide audience in mind, John XXIII discussed extensively the rights and responsibilities that are the necessary framework for building peace. He was attentive to the rights and responsibilities of individuals as well as the obligations that accompany national and international statecraft. Throughout the document, he highlighted the importance of subsidiarity and solidarity.
John XXIII recognized that external changes must be accompanied by internal transformation in order to bring about peace on earth.
Everyone, however must realize that, unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men’s very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race, or to reduce armaments, or–and this is the main thing–ultimately to abolish them entirely (113).
He explained that “the fear and anxious expectation of war” must be dispelled from people’s minds. To that end, John XXIII criticized the logic of the arms race:
But this requires that the fundamental principles upon which peace is based in today’s world be replaced by an altogether different one, namely, the realization that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust (113).
Disarmament, he wrote, is “dictated by common sense” and “is in itself most desirable and most fruitful of good” (113). All people of good will must work together to bring about the conditions necessary for peace through prayer and action.
Near the end of the document, John XXIII offered the following prayer:
Let us, then, pray with all fervor for this peace which our divine Redeemer came to bring us. May He banish from the souls of men whatever might endanger peace. May He transform all men into witnesses of truth, justice and brotherly love. May He illumine with His light the minds of rulers, so that, besides caring for the proper material welfare of their peoples, they may also guarantee them the fairest gift of peace.
Finally, may Christ inflame the desires of all men to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong. Through His power and inspiration may all peoples welcome each other to their hearts as brothers, and may the peace they long for ever flower and ever reign among them (171).
Even a glance at headlines scrawled across social media sites reveals that Pacem in Terris remains relevant fifty years after its promulgation. Globally and locally, violence is pervasive. Action and contemplation as well as dialogue and cooperation across difference remain necessary endeavors to make John XXIII’s vision a reality.
See the full text of John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, 11 April 1963. The quotes in this post are adopted directly from the Vatican translation, which uses gender-specific language.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Religious Studies
Updated 11 April 2013.