‘Pacem in terris’, 60 years later: a Pope’s vision for peace

Six decades on, the year 1963 looks much like 2023. The Vietnam War was heating up. There were coups in Syria, Iraq, Vietnam, Togo, Honduras, and Benin; ethnic violence in Cyprus; war in Congo. The Cold War was colder than ever.

This was the moment that Pope John XXIII chose to publish a letter to all men of good will about peace, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).

Unlike most documents from the Vatican, it was widely read. The New York Times reported it on the front page and published all 15,000 words inside, including footnotes. The lead editorial praised the document, although it regarded it as naïve: “unfortunately, the world does not consist of men of good will alone, and too many forces continue to obstruct a fuller realization of the Pontiff’s program.”

However, I contend that the words of the Pope who convened Vatican II still convey a message which 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 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 4th century Bishop Augustine of Hippo, the Pope 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 goes on to enumerate such rights at length: including the right to material well-being, to be respected, to worship freely, to move to another country for just reasons, and to participate in political life. 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 which transcends purely material considerations. As John XXIII commented, “we 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.



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Today, 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 which are necessary for a lasting peace.

Pacem in Terris reminds us that only within such a transcendent context can we grasp the meaning of political authority. While John XXIII recognizes that authority is essential in any well-ordered society, he also points out that such authority cannot effectively govern simply by “threats and intimidation or promises of reward.” Rather, “authority is before all else a moral force.”

In a world in which the military, economic, and strategic aspects of authority often hold sway, Pacem in Terris thus invites us to rethink the meaning of political authority. Authority in its authentic sense, as the Pope indicates in the document, 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 which 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 for adaptation in order to form a more robust and effective international body.

Certainly, it’s hard to conceive how today’s powerful nation states would want to agree to recognize such a world-wide 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 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 months, especially in Ukraine and Gaza, have served to manifest ever more clearly the impassioned desires for peace held by the men and women of our day. Pacem in terris continues to serve as a source of inspiration and wisdom in the arduous work of making these desires for “peace on earth” a reality.  

Fr Joseph Thomas serves in the Catholic Chaplaincy at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of ‘The Theology of Divine Grace’ (Scepter, 2023).  

Image credits: President John F. Kennedy signs the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on August 5, 1963. 


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