The early 1960’s saw the world facing the grim reality of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, with the threat of a nuclear holocaust. The Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, had become a chilling symbol of the polarization of relations between the Soviet Union and the Western capitalist nations. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 had brought the world to the very brink of war, and Pope John XXIII had been personally involved as a correspondent between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. This alarming event, however, precipitated an eloquent response from the Vatican in the form of the encyclical Pacem in Terris. Issued on April 11, 1963, at the start of the Easter weekend, the encyclical was addressed to not only the Catholic community, or even just the Christian community, but also “all men of good will.” It acknowledged peace as a goal and necessity that transcended all denominational and national boundaries, and it appealed to all on the level of common humanity.
The entire encyclical was an affirmation of human rights and duties, appealing to its audience on the grounds of a common humanity within a global community. While it echoes and develops certain ideas put forth in Pope John’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra (English translation, 1961), it is the first Vatican document to address issues essentially on an international order. In the introduction, Pope John states that the only way to establish peace on earth is to follow God’s order. This divine order is outlined in the first four of five parts of the encyclical.
Part 1 is primarily a discussion of the rights of the human being, such as a “worthy standard of living”; religious, economic and political freedoms; and the right to immigrate and emigrate. This statement of human rights also reflects the political and social times of the mid-twentieth century, when civil rights were a major issue, especially concerning racial segregation and inequality in the southern part of the United States (incidentally, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” in which King argues that active nonviolent resistance is the only true Christian response to injustice, was published in the same week as Pope John’s encyclical). The human rights outlined in part 1 also bear resemblance to the United Nations’ 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” and by aligning Catholic teachings with the goals of a worldwide government, the Vatican showed that its interest lay in not only the Catholic community but also the entire world.
Part 2 addresses the responsibility of figures of public authority. Public authority should be representative of the divine order, and therefore all laws should be made to uphold the moral order and to protect and promote the rights of humans outlined in part 1. These individual rights must be upheld and respected by public officials as it is the primary duty of public authority and government is to serve the greater good.
Part 3 is concerned with the relations between sovereign nations. Individual nations, like individual people, have rights and dignity, and no other nation should infringe on or violate the rights of another nation. The same values of liberty and justice that should govern the single nation should also govern the relations between nations on the global level, and therefore no nation should threaten the liberty or freedom of another nation. Pope John identifies the most significant threat to all liberty and freedom to be nuclear warfare, and a powerful section of part 3 calls for immediate and total disarmament. The global fear inspired by the magnitude of these...
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weapons violates human security and makes global peace impossible.
Part 4 asserts that the “universal common good” takes precedence over the interests of individual nations and calls for a “worldwide public authority” similar to the United Nations, only stronger, to sufficiently protect the individual or nation being threatened by a nation that has violated the divine moral order.
Part 5, “Pastoral Exhortations,” is a call for members of the Church community to take a more active part in the promotion of rights outlined in the first four parts. It acknowledges the recent scientific and technical advances made and entreats that advances in the teaching of ethics and religion be made so as to ensure that all further scientific and technical progression adheres to the ethics of the moral order. Pope John calls for cooperation between those involved in science, politics, and religion to actively achieve global peace. He also urges all members of the Catholic community, including the laity, to incorporate these peaceful values into their lives, to actively work toward the peaceful world order proscribed in the encyclical, and to assist the non-Catholic and non-Christian members of the global community in political and social orders so that they effectively move toward the goal of realizing world peace.
The encyclical was part of Pope John’s efforts to revitalize the church and its teaching in the mid-twentieth century by calling the Second Vatican Council in 1962. However, stricken with stomach cancer, Pope John died two months after issuing Pacem in Terris, before the completion of the Council.