St. Dismas, the Good Thief, is one of the patron saints of all who preach the Gospel, mainly due to the fact that all preachers “steal” material, in one way or another, for their daily task of proclaiming the Good News of Christ.
I readily confess that I do so frequently and without remorse.
Thus, I have no idea where I first “borrowed” this saying about our hope: “I know the end of the story. Look at the Book of Revelation — (spoiler alert) — God wins!”
We know it is an article of faith that the ancient enemies of humankind (sin, Satan and death) have been vanquished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). But as we look at the sin, the chaos, the disorder, the injustices, the wars and rumor of wars that dominate our present times, we can be tempted to lose hope and, even, to despair.
Sometimes perspective is needed, and a healthy perspective often can be gained by returning to the writing of the saints.
In particular, in these turbulent times, great benefit can be gained from reading or rereading the last encyclical of St. John XXIII, 1963’s Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth: Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty).
Written in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Pope’s own diagnosis of terminal cancer, it was published 55 years ago on Holy Thursday (April 11). After his death in June, it was seen by many, including his biographer Peter Hebblethwaite in John XXIII: Pope of the Council, as his “last will and testament.”
In this encyclical, St. John XXIII attempts to exude what the American Jesuit theologian Father John Courtney Murray called at the time “the spirit of ‘confident hope’” (America, April 27, 1963). Just months after the world was threatened with a nuclear war, with the Cold War still at a most risky moment, with proxy and civil wars such as those in the Congo, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Vietnam (doesn’t this list sound familiar?) ongoing or formatting, John XXIII’s encyclical exuded a confident hope in humanity’s ability to rise above the atrocities and strife and begin to build a more peaceful order, based on human rights, freedom and justice.
And this is what Pope John insisted upon — order, an order built on justice, the defense of human rights and the respect for genuine liberty. This type of order is the only foundation for genuine peace.
As St. Augustine taught in City of God, Pax omnium rerum tranquillitas ordinis (“Peace comes from a tranquility of order,” Book XIX, Chapter 13). But to John XXIII, this order cannot be forced, it must be assented to freely and lived out wholly “… to bring the relationships of daily life into conformity with a more human standard, based, as it must be, on truth, tempered by justice, motivated by mutual love, and holding fast to the practice of freedom” (149).
Practically, to Pope St. John, this order can only be achieved if there is a profound reverence for and protection of the human person and his or her human rights:
“Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable” (9).
Pacem in Terris is the first Catholic encyclical to be addressed “to all men of goodwill” and the first to explicitly embrace the modern language of human rights, though it does so in a thoroughly Catholic way.
To Pope John, rights are grounded in the moral truth as discovered in the natural law aided by the light of faith (1-7). In a most exhaustive way, the Holy Father elaborates on the numerous rights (both “positive” and “negative”) that each of us possesses just because we are human (imago Dei): the right to life, bodily integrity, food, shelter, rest, medical care, social services, social security, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, information, education, freedom to choose one’s state of life, work, private property, a living wage, association, emigrate, immigrate, political participation and, most importantly, the juridical protection of all these rights. Believe it or not, this is a partial list from the document (8-27).
But as John XXIII goes to great length to emphasize, a proper understanding of rights also entails an acceptance of the duties that each right entails. For Catholics, a right is best thought of as the conclusion of a moral syllogism.
For example, the right to life flows from the moral syllogism: One should never directly attack or impede or destroy an instantiation of a basic human good. Human life and health is a basic human good. Therefore, human life and health should never be directly attacked, impeded or destroyed.
This moral conclusion can be codified in the language of rights by the statement in Pacem in Terris that “every man (human person) has the right to life …” (11). But, by the same moral reasoning, this right entails the duty to preserve one’s own life, to pursue a healthy lifestyle and never directly attack the life of another.
Pope John cited several examples of this correlation of rights and duties in his encyclical:
“Thus, for example, the right to life involves the duty to preserve one’s life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion; the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it” (29).
In a particularly important move, St. John XXIII expressed that the moral duties and rights flowing from the natural law can also be, in most cases, applied to those entrusted with public authority, the nation state itself, and the relationship between states. In these cases, the common good or the universal common good is the goal and measure of success.
John XXIII’s definition of the common good is centered on the flourishing of each and every human person in accordance with his or her vocation: “The common good of all embraces the sum total of those conditions of social living whereby men are enabled to achieve their own integral perfection more fully and more easily” (58).
This is mainly achieved when personal rights (both positive and negative rights) are promoted and protected. It is the duty of civil authority to ensure that all share in those goods necessary for their fulfillment: “… every civil authority must take pains to promote the common good of all without preference for any single citizen or civic group” (56).
But this also holds on a universal level, as well.
No nation stands alone, just as no person is an isolated, autonomous individual unrelated to others. Pacem in Terris states, “The same natural law, which governs relations between individual human beings, serves also to regulate the relations of nations with one another” (80). It further states that if a nation state rejects the moral truth of the natural law, it rejects the only basis for the authority of its own government. Thus, nation states should pursue the universal common good based on the natural law in their relation with each other.
Pacem in Terris radiates the optimism, the aggiornamento and the “confident hope” one associates with St. John XXIII. But more to the point, it proposes the remedy to what ails our own nation and our own times.
It calls for a commitment to truth and justice in an age that has rejected even the possibility of knowing truth or achieving justice. Against postmodern relativism (“post-truth”), it confidently proclaims that moral truth can be known via the natural law and is found, albeit imperfectly, in such documents as the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. It calls for the strongest defense of all human rights against the totalitarianism of both right and left that would defend only some rights while rejecting others.
It reminds us, quoting St. Augustine, that power without a commitment to justice is tyranny: “What are kingdoms without justice but large bands of robbers?” (92).
But most of all it reminds us that peace, personal and between nations, is grounded in order.
Against the chaos and disorder of our postmodern ruling class, we must not succumb to living lives of disorder and chaos. Each of us has our vocation — our personal call to build up part of God’s kingdom in accordance with his will.
Of course, this begins with our own selves and the call to holiness, but extends to that part of God’s creation entrusted to our care. For, ultimately, as St. John XXIII taught in Pacem in Terris, this is “a requirement of Love”: that “every believer in this world of ours must be a spark of light, a center of love, a vivifying leaven amidst his fellowmen: and he will be this all the more perfectly the more closely he lives in communion with God …” (164).
This is something in which we can place our “confident hope” by drawing ever nearer to the Crucified and Risen One, who is the conqueror of sin, Satan, darkness and death.
In him we are “more than conquerors” (Roman 8:37), which enables us to be “the light unto the nations” (Matthew 5:16) and the leaven in the dough that raises up the whole mess (13:33). It may be a mess out there, but we know the end of the story: God wins, and so does everyone united with him!
Msgr. Stuart Swetland is the president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, and a moral theologian.