On April 11th, 2013, we will celebrate the official publication of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in terris: On Establishing Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty. It is sometimes described as Good Pope John’s last will and testament to the Church; sometimes as the Pope’s letter to the entire world.
Fifty years ago, when, in December 1962, he drew together a drafting committee, Pope John already knew that he was dying from cancer.
This terminal prognosis came in the fourth year of his pontificate; just after he convened the Second Vatican Council and, as indicated by Time Magazine’s decision to vote him “man of the year”, the world was beginning to appreciate what a singularly gifted man, shaped by remarkable experiences, was navigating Peter’s barque.
No-one had been more surprised to have been elected Pope than the aged Cardinal Angelo Roncalli himself. Yet, his extraordinary life had been the perfect preparation – shaped by experience of holocaust and genocide.
His diplomatic postings took him to Bulgaria and Turkey and as Papal Nuncio he had helped to save the lives of thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazi Holocaust. He is commemorated by the State of Israel as among “the righteous gentiles”.
In Turkey he had grown close to the Armenian community who had experienced the horrors of the Armenian genocide.
As war raged in1942 Angelo Roncalli made his annual retreat in Istanbul. In his diary he recorded his decision to re-read St.Augustine’s “City of God”. Twenty years later, Augustine’s influence, and those personal experiences, would be reflected in the instruction he issued to the team of writers commissioned to draft “Pacem in Terris”, insisting that peace is dependent on “a tranquillity of order” and “Order is giving each thing its place, the Peace of mankind is ordered harmony in the home, in the city, in man.”
The 1942 retreat took as its theme the role of a bishop in understanding the signs of the times, signs understood in the context of history. As he wrestled with the duty of a bishop to be prophetic, Roncalli’s diary records the signs of the time which were shaping his thinking: “even the history that is now, before our eyes, adding pages of blood to pages of political and social disorder.” In 1962, in opening the Second Vatican Council, he returned to this theme reflecting that “history is the teacher of life.”
These historical events – egregious violations of human rights, the degradation of the human person, mass murder – led him to conclude two things: firstly, that tranquillity, true peace, comes from order and, secondly that, to foster tranquillity of order, a bishop must be prophetic in addressing the spectacle of disorders, the challenges of the day.
“Pacem in Terris” was cast against the drama of the Cold War nuclear arms race exemplified by the Cuban missile crisis, the violence which frequently accompanied decolonization (graphically illustrated in 1963 by the war in Vietnam), the civil rights movement of Dr.Martin Luther King in the United States and the disaggregation of society as many of its widely held assumptions – on issues such as abortion or marriage – were being challenged.
Professor Russell Hittinger calls “Pacem in Terris” the Church’s Magna Carta of human rights and natural law. It was also its response to the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
Although the encyclical insists upon many rights, such as the right to life and human development, respect for the person, the rights of women, the right to freely seek truth, and the right of free expression, these aren’t a shopping list. Unlike the UN Declaration the document’s architecture is underpinned by six modes of order – including order in the lives of individual human persons; and order in the way we organise our communities and politics.
These themes in “Pacem in Terris” set the tone for the Second Vatican Council’s key documents – especially Gaudiem et spes, the Church’s constitution – themes which still have considerable influence on how the Church speaks and thinks. Take, for instance, the 46 references in “Pacem in Terris” to the familiar phrase “the common good.”
Another word which became associated with the encyclical was the phrase “aggiornamento”, interpreted by some as bringing the Church’s thinking up to date and by others as being open to co-operation with the political Left where such collaboration might achieve “morally lawful aspirations.”
Significantly, “Pacem in Terris” also insisted that ranked among human rights is the right “of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of how own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and public.” This is the curtain raiser for “Dignitatis Humane” – the Council’s historic declaration on religious liberty, containing its denunciation of forced conversion and intolerance.
There are many rich seams in this great encyclical. Deeply mined and understood by the generation of Catholics who grew up in the post-Council years, the encyclical was not always read or properly understood by their secular counterparts. Never having read it, or understood its insistent call for a conversion of heart, they frequently used its title as a slogan to support competing ideologies. Rarely mentioned, either, were the six modes of order used in framing the encyclical – although these modes contain the duties and obligations which must always accompany claimed rights and without which there can be no right order. They are as brother and sister.
Almost from the moment of its publication, and over the five decades which have followed, there have been calls to remove the references to Divine Order contained in “Pacem in Terris” and demands to accommodate the world’s insatiable appetite for rights shorn of commensurate duties. In 2008, Pope Benedict addressed this perennial question. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly warned of the danger of separating human rights “from the ethical and rational dimension – which constitutes their foundation and end – in favour of pure utilitarian legalism.”
Fifty years ago it was to the United Nations that Cardinal Suenens delivered a copy of “Pacem in Terris”, describing it as “an open letter to the world.” Its central message was that the “tranquillity of order” begins in each man’s heart; that “its foundation is truth and it must be brought into effect by justice”; and that “it needs to be animated and perfected by men’s love for one another.” It is a message which has lost none of its urgency or appeal with the mere passage of time.
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