Looking at Pacem in Terris 50 years later

Blessed Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”) was a historic document right from its opening address. It remains unique and important. It is still, in fact, the Catholic Church’s most extensive statement ever on human rights. 

A half-century after its April 11, 1963, publication, Pacem in Terris is worth another look.

Time of crisis

It should not be surprising that Pope John wanted to say something to the world about peace in the spring of 1963. 

The Cuban missile crisis was still a fresh and frightening memory. In October 1962, the leaders of the world’s two superpowers — the American President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev — very nearly brought the planet to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Pope John himself played a key role in bringing that crisis to a peaceful conclusion. 

As American and Soviet warships faced each other in a precarious standoff in the Atlantic Ocean, the pope sent a message directly to the American and Soviet leaders, which was also broadcast on Vatican radio and printed in newspapers around the world. He implored the leaders to “spare the world from the horrors of a war whose terrifying consequences no one can predict” by continuing diplomatic discussions. That gave Kruschev an opportunity to step back from the confrontation in a way that looked like a gesture of peace rather than cowardice. 

A few months later, Time magazine named Pope John “Man of the Year.” By the spring of 1963, his credibility was unquestionable. 

Moreover, the pope had learned just two weeks after the crisis that he was dying of cancer. With little time left as a global spiritual leader, he resolved to say something to the world about peace.

Human rights

Equally historic is the topic that Pope John chose in the encyclical to connect most directly with peace: human rights. For a pope to speak of human rights in a positive way was a dramatic development. 

“For a very long time, the Church had been allergic to talking about rights. Since the French Revolution, it had been opposed to human-rights language,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Massaro, an expert on Catholic social teaching who teaches theology at Santa Clara University. 

The leaders of the French Revolution, which broke out in 1791, saw the Church’s ancient authority, traditions and hierarchy as offensive and opposed to basic human equality and dignity. They set out intentionally to destroy the Church in the name of human rights. 

Church leaders, of course, opposed this and condemned it. But they failed to distinguish what might have been worthwhile in the revolutionary thinking from what was murderous, and they placed themselves at the same time in firm opposition to the idea of human rights. 

When the French Assembly published its Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1791, Pope Pius VI condemned it immediately, opposing the Church not only to the revolution’s rejection of its authority to teach in the name of God, but also to ideas like freedom of religion and freedom of the press. A generation later, Pope Gregory XVI condemned freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion and free speech as “absurd and erroneous.” In 1864, Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” included freedom of religion and freedom of worship among the dangerous errors of the day. 

But the world changed in the decades that followed. Much more recently, the terrible events of World War II left much of the Western world searching for moral bearings on which society might rest. The United Nations was founded in 1945, and one of its first significant efforts was the ratification of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

In some ways, Pacem in Terris is an example of the Church learning from the world. Many of the most important ideas in the encyclical were written into the U.N. declaration 15 years earlier. Pacem in Terris is the Church’s stamp of approval on the thinking. If there is a difference between the two, it is in the encyclical’s emphasis on duties alongside rights. 

In the encyclical, Pope John offers a long list of human rights — rights that belong to every person, regardless of accomplishments, economic status, religious beliefs, personal goodness, citizenship or political convictions. 

Natural law

One notable aspect of the encyclical is its reliance primarily on natural law (rather than divine revelation or papal authority) to support its teaching. 

“The idea of natural law says there is a structure to the universe intended by God. People can discern God’s will in moral matters through human reason,” even without referring to the Bible or Church teaching, Father Massaro said. This central tenet of Catholic moral theology suggests that non-Catholics, or nonbelievers, are able to understand moral principles and act on them. 

This is reflected in the first words of Pope John’s letter, where he addresses his words to “all people of good will.” Previously, papal encyclicals were addressed either to Catholic bishops or to all Catholics, but never to those outside the Church. In beginning this way, Pope John was making a statement that the moral principles he was teaching were accessible to people who did not share the Church’s faith. 

“It’s a very optimistic vision in that sense,” Father Massaro said. 

Long shadow

Though Pope John died just two months after the encyclical’s publication, the impact he made with it has been long term. 

Jesuit Father John Coleman, an expert on Catholic human rights doctrine, told Our Sunday Visitor that Pacem in Terris influenced the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (which had opened in October 1962 and concluded in December 1965). The Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, was, Father Coleman said, “deeply influenced by Pacem in Terris.” The document expressed doubts (No. 80) about whether there could ever be any morally acceptable use of nuclear weapons in warfare, an idea that Pope John had expressed in Pacem in Terris

We also see John’s influence in the Council’s historic defense of religious freedom in the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. Pope John had made reference in Pacem in Terris (No. 14) to “being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public.” 

Following his election as pope in 1978, Pope John Paul II soon made a strong defense of human rights around the world a hallmark of his pontificate. He quoted frequently from Pacem in Terris. 

“It’s certainly true that Pacem in Terris cast a long shadow,” Father Massaro said. 

Barry Hudock is the author of the forthcoming book “Faith Meets World” (Liguori, $16.99).