John XXIII: Pacem in Terris

A Summary Article by Gerald Darring

Pope John calls attention to certain characteristics of his age, the "signs of the times" which will form the basis of his analysis and proposals in this encyclical:
-- people have become increasingly conscious of their human dignity (a. 79)
-- workers are claiming their rights in the socio-economic sphere (a. 40)
-- women are claiming the rights and duties that befit a human person (a. 41)
-- nations are achieving their independence (a. 42)
-- more and more nations are basing government on constitutions (a. 76) and are including in their constitutions charters of fundamental human rights (a. 75)
-- people are showing an increasing interest in the affairs of all other people, and they are becoming more aware that they are living members of a world community (a. 145)
-- the interdependence of national economies has grown deeper (a. 130), and no country can pursue its own interests and develop itself in isolation (a. 131)
-- leaders of nations, working through normal diplomatic channels or top-level meetings, are no longer able to solve world problems (a. 133-35)
-- people are becoming more and more convinced that disputes which arise between states should not be resolved by recourse to arms, but rather by negotiation (a. 126)
-- the human family has entered the era of the atom and the conquest of space on its new advance toward limitless horizons (a. 156)

The chosen topic of the encyclical is peace. Pope John says that the consolidation of peace is a profound aspiration shared by all people of good will (a. 166), and yet we face an immense task of bringing about true peace in the order established by God (a. 163). The challenge is to take the fundamental principle on which the present peace depends--the fear and anxious expectation of war--and replace it with another, which declares that true world peace can only consist in mutual trust, not in equality of arms (a. 113). The fundamental thesis of the encyclical is that peace will only be an empty-sounding word unless it is based on the order founded on truth, built according to justice, integrated by charity, and put into practice in freedom (a. 167). In developing this thesis, John reminds Christians that Jesus Christ is the author of peace (a. 117), the Prince of Peace (a. 167) who brings us peace and leaves us peace (a. 170), and he reminds everyone that there can be no peace among people unless there is peace within each one of them (a. 165).

John sees reigning in the world an astonishing order which humans can understand (a. 2). The source of this order is the personal and transcendent God (a. 38). Conscience reveals God's order to us and enjoins us to obey it (a. 5), and we can establish peace only if we observe the order laid down by God (a. 1). This social order is by nature moral: it is grounded in truth, guided by justice, inspired by love, and refined in freedom (a. 37); or, to put it another way: its foundation is truth, its measure and objective is justice, it driving force is love, and its method of attainment is freedom (a. 149).

This social order is based on the principle of human dignity: every human being is a person, endowed with intelligence and free will, and having rights and duties which are universal, inviolable and inalienable (a. 9). It requires, therefore, that we recognize and observe mutual rights and duties (a. 31). The goal is the achievement of the common good, which embraces the sum total of those conditions of social living whereby people are enabled to achieve their own integral perfection more fully and more easily (a. 58). The common good can never exist fully and completely unless the human person is taken into account (a. 55), and even the public authority of the world community must have as its fundamental objective the recognition, respect, safeguarding and promotion of the rights of the human person (a. 139)

What are the basic human rights? John lists them in this order: the right to life, bodily integrity, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, necessary social services (a. 11); the right to respect for one's person, good reputation, freedom to search for truth, freedom of speech, freedom of information (a. 12); the right to share in the benefits of culture, education (a. 13); freedom of worship (a. 14); freedom to choose one's state of life and to form a family (a. 15); freedom of initiative in the economic field, the right to work (a. 18); the right to adequate working conditions (a. 19), proper wage (a. 20), private property, even of productive goods (a. 21); freedom of assembly and association (a. 23); freedom of movement and residence, the right to emigrate and immigrate (a. 25, 106); the right to active participation in public affairs (a. 26); the right to juridical protection of rights (a. 27); and the right to act freely and responsibly (a. 34).

John points out that people possessing these rights have the duty to claim them as marks of their dignity (a. 44). Moreover, these rights must be acknowledged and respected by others, and also effectively fulfilled (a. 32). They should be regulated so as not to threaten others in the exercise of their own rights, and when they are violated, they should be completely restored (a. 62). Exiles are persons, and they do not lose their human rights simply because they have lost their citizenship (a. 105). John praises the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he says represents an important step on the path toward the juridico-political organization of the world community (a. 144).

The pope makes clear that each right obligates others to acknowledge and respect that right (a. 30) and also that each right carries with it a corresponding duty (a. 28). For example, there is a social duty inherent in the right of private property (a. 22). The encyclical, then, stresses personal rights, but it also stresses personal obligations: individuals and groups must make their specific contributions to the common welfare (a. 53), and this means not only their own countries but also the entire human family (a. 146); individuals should take an active part in government (a. 73); people should carry on their worldly activities competently but also as the exercise of a right, as the performance of a service, and as a response to God's providence (a. 150).

Communities of people also have rights. Each country has the right to existence, to self-development and the means to attain it, to primary responsibility for its own development, to a good name and the respect which is its due (a. 86). It has the corresponding duty to respect these rights in other countries (a. 92), and it has the duty to accept immigrants and to help integrate them as new members (a. 106).

Pope John addresses the principles of national governance, since they are essential to peace in the world. He points out that it is inhuman to base a human society on force (a. 34). People have the right to choose who governs, the form of government, and the manner and extent of governing authority (a. 52), and all members of the political community are entitled to share in it (a. 56). The best form of government is that which best reflects the historical background and circumstances of the particular political community and which embodies the three principal functions of government (a. 68).

Public authorities derive their authority from God (a. 46), and obedience to them shows reverence to God (a. 50). Public authority must derive its obligatory force from the moral order (a. 47), so that its first appeal is not to fear of punishment or promise of reward but to individual consciences (a. 48). The chief concern of civil authorities is to insure that personal rights are acknowledged, respected, coordinated with other rights, defended and promoted (a. 60). When a government disregards personal rights, its orders completely lack juridical force (a. 61). Civil authorities must promote both the material and the spiritual welfare of citizens (a. 57), and sometimes civil authorities must give more attention to the members of the community less able to defend their rights and assert their legitimate claims (a. 56). Government should concern itself with social as well as economic progress (a. 64), intervening in economic, political and cultural matters to limit the inequalities among citizens (a. 63) but without curtailing an individual's freedom of personal initiative (a. 65).

Addressing the matter of law, Pope John speaks on one level of natural law, pointing out that every fundamental human right derives its moral force from the natural law (a. 30). He asserts that laws governing human relationships are based on human nature, and they are different from the laws governing the irrational forces of the universe (a. 6). On the practical level of legislation, John insists that laws should conform to the needs of a given historical situation (a. 54); legislators should never forget the norms of morality, the constitution, or the requirements of the common good (a. 69); and laws contrary to the moral order and the will of God are not binding on the consciences of citizens (a. 51).

Every discussion of world peace must address the issue of the world community. All countries are by nature equal in dignity (a. 86, 89). They all have rights and duties, John says, and their relationships must be harmonized in truth, justice, solidarity and freedom (a. 80). Countries with a higher level of development should not take unjust advantage of their superiority over others (a. 88), and no country should develop itself by restricting or oppressing other states (a. 92). Indeed, economically developed nations should come to the aid of those which are in the process of development (a. 121), respecting the moral heritage and ethnic characteristics peculiar to those countries and avoiding any intention of political domination (a. 125).

The common good of each country cannot be divorced from the common good of the entire human family (a. 98). No country may unjustly oppress others or unduly meddle in their affairs (a. 120), and indeed what should reign among nations is not fear but a love expressing itself in productive collaboration (a. 129). In this spirit, countries should facilitate the circulation from one to the other of capital, goods and manpower (a. 101).

Noting that the promotion of the common good demands effective authority (a. 136), and that the universal common good poses problems of world-wide dimensions (a. 137), Pope John proposes that a public authority, having worldwide power and the means to pursue its objective, be set up by common accord and not imposed by force (a. 138). The public authority of the world community must have as its fundamental objective the recognition, respect, safeguarding and promotion of the rights of the human person (a. 139). It should facilitate the work of national governments, and in no way should limit their sphere of action, much less take their place (a. 141). The pope expresses the hope that the day may come when every human being will find in the United Nations an effective safeguard for the rights derived from one's dignity as a human being (a. 145).

The worst offense against peace, of course, is war, and Pope John quotes Pope Pius XII, who said: "Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war" (a. 116). John himself asserts that it is hardly possible to imagine that in the atomic era war could be used as an instrument of justice (a. 127). He notes that nations are spending fabulous sums for armaments, not for aggression, they say, but to dissuade others from aggression (a. 128). This stockpiling of armaments depletes intellectual and economic resources and deprives other countries of needed collaboration (a. 109). He also notes that even though the monstrous power of modern weapons acts as a deterrent, the mere continuance of nuclear tests may have fatal consequences for life on earth (a. 111). He concludes that the arms race should cease, stockpiles should be equally and simultaneously reduced, nuclear weapons should be banned, and there should be an agreement on progressive disarmament and an effective method of control (a. 112).

Avoiding war is one thing; building peace is quite another. John proposes certain actions and approaches which we might consider his directives for peace.

He teaches that the equal dignity of all people means that racial discrimination cannot be justified (a. 44), and every trace of racism should be eliminated in international relations (a. 86).

He teaches that it is for the common good to respect the ethnic characteristics of different groups (a. 55). The betterment of minority ethnic groups should be promoted by government (a. 96), and their strength and numerical increase should never be limited (a. 95). At the same times, ethnic characteristics should not be placed above human values (a. 97), and ethnic characteristics must not be transformed into a watertight compartment in which people cannot communicate with people from other ethnic groups (a. 100).

He teaches that international differences must be settled, not by force, nor by deceit or trickery, but by assessing the conflicting positions and reconciling the differences (a. 93).

He teaches that world leaders should seek an adjustment founded on mutual trust, on sincerity in negotiations and on faithful fulfillment of obligations assumed (a. 118).

He teaches that those who are inclined to change things through revolution should be aware that to proceed gradually is the law of life in all its expressions (a. 161-62).

Before closing his encyclical, Pope John provides a Christian perspective on the search for peace. He points out that many institutions in Christian countries do not reflect Christian values (a. 151). In John's opinion, this is so because of an inconsistency between Christians' faith and their life in the world (a. 152), an inconsistency resulting from the lack of a solid Christian education (a. 153).

He explains that, because the principles outlined in this document are from the natural law, Catholics should be able to come to an understanding with other Christians and with non-Christians (a. 157). He says that in dealing with others, we must never confuse error and the person who errs: the person who errs always retains his dignity as a person and should be treated in accord with that dignity (a. 158). Moreover, we must distinguish between false philosophical teachings and the historical movements they spawn, since the movements are always subject to change (a. 159). It may opportune and prudent, therefore, to arrange for meetings to achieve economic, social, cultural and political ends which are honorable and useful (a. 160).

In the end, he encourages every believer to be a spark of light, a center of love, and a leaven among people (a. 164).