Which reading of Pacem in terris? Considerations halfway through the 50th anniversary year

Organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a major international conference on Pacem in terris was held in Rome from 2-4 October last. Available in bookshops over the next few days will be a book of our Observatory series commemorating this important encyclical, and which we will comment upon at greater length. We are at the height of the activities being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of this encyclical (1963 – 2013) by John XXIII; these and other commemorative events have taken place, and books as well as articles have been published in this regard.

In general terms, examples of the reading and rereading of the encyclical on the occasion of this 50th anniversary have stressed innovative elements present in Pacem in terris compared with the positions expressed by the Church prior to its publication. And many are the developments to be found in this encyclical: from the attention brought to bear on peoples coming to grips with independence, unto the social issue of women. It is right and just to highlight these new developments because the Social Doctrine of the Church is the encounter of the Gospel with the ever new problems that have to be faced by the community of humankind. We know very well that the Social Doctrine of the Church has elements of innovation together with elements bespeaking continuity. For this reason, and in order to pay due tribute to them, it would be necessary to highlight the elements of continuity alongside the new developments. This, however, is either not done, or done to a much lesser degree. What therefore happens is that new readings of encyclicals are unbalanced, and what comes across is the idea that the latest encyclical is truer than its predecessors because it says newer things. This is the attitude of the ‘newfanglers’ taken so rightly to task by Leo XIII.   

If we read Pacim in Terris with due attention, together with many ‘new things’ we also find evergreen doctrines. These doctrines for all times are what shed light on the new developments. The Social Doctrine of the Church is not a chronicle of new facts, but the interpretation of them in the light of ever valid doctrine.

John XXIII speaks of “social order (n°1), and of God as the foundation and source of this social order insofar as it is a moral order(n° 38); he says authority comes from God insofar as whoever exercises authority does so as participation in the authority of God (nn. 47-49), and asserts that the common good must also include reference to God and cannot be understood only in a horizontal sense (nn. 57-59); lastly, he says that dialogue with non believers is based on natural law and that there are to be no compromises with them as far as matters of faith and morality are concerned (n° 157). 

Therefore, in addition to highlighting the new and certainly important things in the encyclical relative to the theme of peace, when rereading the encyclical on its 50th anniversary it would also be necessary to point out that in the mind of John XXIII social and political activity must respect the social order created by God, authority in democracy as well ultimately comes from God and not from the sovereign people, and there is no common good without the good of the Christian religion: “The common good is to be procured by such ways and means which are not only not detrimental to man’s eternal salvation, but which positively contribute to it” (n. 59). Things like these, however, are voiced far less often because they would irritate our less like-minded contemporaries. The risk run by saying them less often is the loss of John XXIII’s continuity with Pious XII and the tradition of the Social Doctrine of the Church at large.

(NP: Paragraph numbers and quotation taken from the NCWC Translation of Pacem in Terris, (Pauline Books & Media, Boston MA, USA)