From the title you would imagine that Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) is mostly about relations between the nations and ridding the world of war and conflict.
But Blessed John XXIII’s encyclical of 1963 is about so much more than that. It is about peace in the most comprehensive sense of that term, it is about peace in all its forms.
Above all, the encyclical argues right at the start, peace can only come about “by the diligent observance of the divinely established order”.
Of course, in one sense this means we will never have true peace this side of the Kingdom of God.
Indeed, attempts to bring about true peace by imposing a certain comprehensive order on human affairs, whether that be by theological or secular authorities have always resulted in disaster.
When the Church dominated the life of Europe in centuries past we did not have true peace, or anything close to it. And in the last century when various secular ideologies tried to impose ‘true peace’, for example by trying to create a classless society, millions died.
Pacem in Terris was published only months after the Cuban missile crisis when the world came quite close to nuclear war. The possibility of by far and away the worst violence in history breaking out was ever present 50 years ago.
Therefore the encyclical makes various references to the “arms race” and “atomic weapons” although never directly to either the United States or the Soviet Union or any of the other nuclear powers.
It called for atomic weapons to be completely banned. That still hasn’t happened 50 years on. Although the total number of nuclear weapons held by the Americans and Russians has reduced greatly, the number of powers that have nuclear weapons has increased and includes very volatile countries like Pakistan and North Korea.
Another volatile regime, Iran, is believed to be in the process of developing nuclear weaponry. But even if one day there is total peace between nations (unlikely) and all swords have been beaten into ploughshares (also very unlikely), there still wouldn’t be peace in the way the Church means it.
For there to be true peace, we need to be justly governed and there needs to be peaceful relations between individuals. Above all, we need to be properly reconciled with God because only in that way can we have peace within ourselves. (“We are made for thee O Lord and we cannot rest until we rest in thee”).
To repeat, this means we will never have true and complete peace this side of the Kingdom of God, but we have to strive to get there all the same.
Pacem in Terris turns its attention to the multiple ways in which a just and peaceful order is brought about.
It spends a fair amount of time discussing economic issues such as conditions for workers, a just wage that will allow someone to support their family, the necessities a government must provide the people including proper medical care.
It doesn’t say by what means these things must be provided. In respect of medical care, for example, the Government could decide to provide it directly by the State and the raising of taxes, or through encouraging health insurance schemes that provide it in other ways.
But it must create the conditions by which people have access to decent medical care insofar as resources allow.
The encyclical also devotes considerable space to the issue of religious freedom. In 1963, many Christians lived in communist countries where freedom of religion was either very limited or non-existent.
Today, Christianity is still heavily persecuted in many parts of the world and in the West efforts are being made to curtail freedom of religion in ways John XXIII can barely have anticipated.
Essentially, there are efforts to reduce freedom of religion to freedom of worship only. Therefore there are voices calling for an end to State-funding of religious schools, an end to religious influence on public affairs, the curtailing of the freedom of many religious organisations.
For example, in Britain and the US, Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close because they don’t go along with gay adoption.
In various countries the right of medical workers like doctors and nurses to conscientiously object to abortion is limited and is essentially non-existent in very secular countries like Sweden.
Pacem in Terris touches on human nature and the natural law generally. It says, “the world’s Creator has stamped man’s inmost being with an order revealed to man by his conscience; and his conscience insists on his preserving it”. This is a direct reference to the natural law.
In a similar vein it speaks of our rights and duties being “universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable”.
This view of Man is altogether threatened by a relativistic mentality that has strengthened enormously since 1963.
For example, it is now widely denied that there is any such thing as human nature at all. It is claimed that there are no real differences between men and women apart from the physical ones. All the other differences have to do with the way we are raised and therefore if we are raised differently boys will be like girls and vice versa.
This, of course, leads to the denial there are any real differences between men and women as mothers and fathers and the way is then paved for gay marriage and adoption.
There is also an outright denial that the moral law comes ultimately from God. Instead we are told that the law is purely manmade and therefore can’t be inalienable, meaning our rights can be taken away from us.
This is paradoxical in view of the obsessive rights talk that goes on all around us all the time.
Pacem in Terris reminds us that “laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men’”.
This is exceedingly radical, especially in this part of the world which increasingly banishes all mention of God from the affairs of men.
Reading Pacem in Terris 50 years on what is most striking is the fact that true peace is so multi-dimensional and that we seem to be as far away from it as ever in many ways.
Progress in some areas (civil rights) is accompanied by retreat in other areas (the rise of moral relativism and individualism, the retreat from God and the attacks on human nature, for example).
Basically, it is we who keep getting in the way of the achievement of true peace. Yet we have to keep chasing that goal in the hope of finding some portion of it, not only in society and between societies, but in our own personal lives.
Pacem in Terris shows us how to get closer to the goal. It deserves to be re-read and closely studied half a century after its publication.