Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth)

Pope John XXIII, 1963

Pope John XXIII wrote the encyclical Pacem in Terris in April of 1963 to address a world deeply engaged in the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had just gone up and the Cuban Missile Crisis frightened millions as nuclear weapons began to proliferate.

At a time in world history marked by powerful new weapons, rivalry, and fear His Holiness sought to reassure not only the Catholic World, but also all people, that peace on earth is possible through the divinely established order.

The world has seen continued economic, scientific, and technological growth. These tremendous advances are examples of “the infinite greatness of God Himself, who created both man and the universe.” (Paragraph 3)

All of humanity was created in God’s own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26.) and endowed with intelligence and freedom and give power over the earth. We were also given free will along with certain rights and duties.

Each person has the right to life and the means necessary to live their life. In addition, all of humanity has a natural right to be respected, to worship God, to live their life as they choose, to work and support a family, to form associations, to emigrate, and to take an active role in public life. All people also have the duty to preserve their life, to respect the rights of others, work together for the common good, and maintain an attitude of responsibility.

The purpose of the public authority, or government, is to attain the common good. This is best achieved when personal rights and duties are protected. The condition of people is a major consideration when determining the form of government in a country. Government must also never disregard the moral law and justice must be administered impartially.

Relations between states ought to also be characterized by truth, justice, willing cooperation, and freedom. Nations who have achieved significant scientific, cultural and economic development shouldn’t exert unjust political domination over other states, but instead ought to use their advances to advance the global common good.

Each country has the right to existence, to self development, and the means to achieve their development. Minority groups should be protected and be allowed to live in association with the other peoples within a state. The encyclical continues by discussing relations between races and the issue of political refugees.

John XXIII was very distressed to see the enormous ongoing build up of arms during arms the Cold War – particularly the cost and the resources devoted to it. He called for a process of disarmament by every nation.

At the same time, he repeats the appeal made in Mater et Magistra that every nation assists those in economic development. The continued integration of the world economy has meant that no state can pursue its own interests in isolation. Growing economic interdependence requires cooperation for progress.

In a 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop commented on Church teachings on war and peace. Written during the height of the Cold War, the letter emphasizes the Church’s strong desire for the peaceful settlement of disputes.

In exceptional cases, determined by the moral principles of the just-war tradition, some uses of force are permitted. The Church recognizes that while every nation has a right and duty to defend itself against unjust aggression, offensive war of any kind is not morally justifiable. Even a defensive response to an unjust attack may go far beyond the limits of legitimate defense if it causes destruction that violates the principle of proportionality.

In a world with ever increasing technology, it is important to remember that nuclear and conventional weapons should never be used for “the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their populations. . . .” (Pastoral Constitution, #80.) The intentional killing of innocent civilians or non-combatants is always wrong.

To avoid war we must be intent on building peace in an increasingly interdependent world. Working with other states to provide for the common good is a constant endeavor and Catholics must urge their political leaders to do so.

Link to: Pacem in Terris

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