Papal Plea for ‘Peace on Earth’ Still Packs Resonance

COMMENTARY: Pope John XXIII’s vision continues to inspire the faithful in the arduous task of peacemaking.

Pope John XXIII's coronation on Nov. 4 1958.
Pope John XXIII's coronation on Nov. 4 1958. (photo: Public Domain / Associated Press )

In the midst of a world that tragically suffers from war and civil discord, we naturally long for reference points that inspire us toward peace.

On April 11, 1963, as the Church began its Easter Triduum, Pope John XXIII offered the world one such beacon of hope: the encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). The document was addressed not just to Catholics but, in a groundbreaking move, to all persons of goodwill.

Now, as then, the words of the Pope who convened Vatican II continue to convey a message that reaches across cultural and religious boundaries.

John XXIII had been accustomed to working across such differences through his extensive diplomatic experience in Bulgaria, Turkey and France. Months before Pacem in Terris, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Pope’s forceful appeal made a significant contribution to defusing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. But in his document dedicated to world peace, the Pontiff invited the world to look beyond immediate conflicts and reflect more deeply on the underlying causes of war.

Echoing a traditional principle first articulated by the fourth-century Bishop St. Augustine of Hippo, the Holy Father asserted that peace on earth “can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.”

To bring about such order, on the global scale, Pope John desired to first fix the world’s attention on a fundamental principle present at a much smaller level: “that each individual man is truly a person … endowed with intelligence and free will,” and as such, having “rights and duties” which are “universal and inviolable.”

The document identifies such rights at length, including the right to material well-being, to worship freely, and to move to another country for just reasons. All such rights, the Pope noted, are bound up with just as many duties, since each right implies the duty to recognize and respect the rights of others.

Constructing a well-ordered society with genuine peace, built upon mutual respect and collaboration, requires a vision that transcends purely material considerations.

As John XXIII commented, “[W]e must think of human society as being primarily a spiritual reality.” For the Pope, such a perspective would include the recognition of God, but also imply such spiritual ideals as justice, charity and truth.

His words continue to challenge us to see beyond the material questions of military might, political power and national identity and give priority to those spiritual ideals that are necessary for a lasting peace.

Pacem in Terris also invites us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of political authority. Authority in its authentic sense, as the Pope indicates, means looking beyond the good of each nation and resisting the temptation of wealthier countries to dominate other nations. It also requires overcoming the logic of arms-building, according to which peace might be achieved on “the basis of on equal balance of armaments.”

Instead, Pope John describes the growing conviction that disputes between nations need to be resolved by negotiation and agreement. He expresses the hope that, by following this path, nations might come to recognize that “love, not fear, must dominate the relationships between individuals and between nations.”

In addressing the topic of international cooperation, Pacem in Terris makes a proposal that might seem to be a bit fanciful, at least in today’s political context: the need for a global political authority.

While expressing his appreciation for the United Nations, John XXIII asserts the need to form a more robust and effective international body. Certainly, it’s hard to conceive how the powerful nation states, the U.S. included, would want to agree to recognize such a worldwide power.

Nonetheless, this proposal invites us to consider: How can we provide for the authentic good of all humanity if authority does not act in a more universal way?

Sixty-one years have passed since John XXIII presented his vision of world peace. Perhaps we might have the impression that not much has changed in that time. Nonetheless, the tragic events of recent years have served to manifest ever more clearly the impassioned desires for peace held by the men and women of our day.

The timeless principles found Pacem in Terris continue to serve as a source of inspiration and wisdom in the arduous work of making these desires for peace on earth a reality.