· Vatican City ·

On 11 April commemorating 60 years since the publication of Pope John xxiii ’s ‘Pacem in Terris’ Encyclical

Peace is more than the absence of war

 Peace is more than the absence of war  ING-014
06 April 2023

I therefore spent all of Vespers, about three hours, to reading the Easter encyclical in preparation, [it was] put together for me by Msgr. Pavan: ‘Peace among men in the established order of God and that is: in truth, in justice, in love, in freedom’. A 111-page typewritten manuscript. I read everything, alone, calmly and very minutely: and I find it very well thought out and well done. The final part then: ‘Pastoral Calls’ is in full resonance with my spirit. I begin to pray for the efficacy of this document, I hope it will be released on Easter and that it will be a source of great edification. So wrote John xxiii — who was already gravely ill — on 7 January 1963, entrusting to his journal a wish that was only partially fulfilled. Yes, because the encyclical, later called “Pacem in Terris”, for the first time also addressed to “all men of good will”, was promulgated at the desired time, the following 11 April, Holy Thursday — and even signed two days earlier before the television cameras. Sixty years later, it has yet to be implemented in its firm indications, those outlining the design of the new world order founded on the values of truth, justice, charity and freedom, and of peace, “which man throughout the ages has so longed for”, imagined not only as an absence of war, but rather as the goal of an educational, spiritual, political and economic process. Indeed, not only do wars continue to be made, but there is no end to violations of basic rights and human dignity, a term that appears more than 30 times in the encyclical. Instead, not only are appeals to spread a culture of nonviolence ignored — as Pope Francis recalls, “the decisive and consistent practice of nonviolence has produced impressive results” — but agreements and pacts formally signed by quite a few governments also turn out to be waste paper. In short it is a living and unfulfilled encyclical. That permanent commitment to peace and to the common good which is “the sole reason for the existence of civil authorities”, recommended in what is the last gift of a great sower of peace, with so many experiences lived between East and West, also as a witness to two world wars of the 20th century, has in fact remained disregarded.

Pacem in Terris” developed during the Cuban missile crisis, when in October 1962, during the days of the opening of the Council, Pope John xxiii became the protagonist of an appeal for peace, welcomed by Kennedy and Krushchev in a world that was on the brink of nuclear war. Ever since November 1962, Pietro Pavan, a priest who was an expert in the social doctrine of the Church, imagined a text that would give shape to that commitment. He played a big role in writing the text that was circulated among experts starting from the following January, and that remained almost unchanged in its prophetic strength, with the exception of some points which were removed (for example the one on objection of conscience), but shortly thereafter restored by the strength of some prophets and the commitment of small communities. In any case, the main point of the encyclical is that — after the advent of nuclear weapons — the very idea of solving controversies with the use of weapons was considered irrational (alienum a ratione) — not however, without the indication of perspectives regarding peace building and integral disarmament involving “men’s very souls”. And if for a long time the Church had taught that war was permissible for self defense, here then was “Pacem in Terris”, stating that the lack of equilibrium between the means available (atomic weapons) and the aims (the restoration of the rights violated), makes it impossible to continue along these lines. In other words, without saying it: enough with “just wars”. And this was said in words adhering to the Gospel, confident in paths that were attentive to the promotion of human rights, safe from the conflict of ideologies responsible for the culture of waste with its different forms of exploitation and marginalization.

But it’s not all. Because “Pacem in Terris” continues to be the encyclical that invites us “to distinguish between error as such and the person who falls into error”, and to recognize the encounters and understanding through time, between believers and non-believers as an opportunity to discover the truth and pay tribute to it. And it states, “it is perfectly legitimate to make a clear distinction between a false philosophy of the nature, origin and purpose of men and the world, and economic, social, cultural, and political undertakings”. Even if such undertakings draw their origin and inspiration from that philosophy, continues the encyclical that reconciles the Church and democracy, social doctrine and human rights, they “cannot avoid being influenced to a certain extent by the changing conditions in which they have to operate”. Upon closer inspection, the leit motif that essentially spans the entire text, remains an invitation to acknowledge the “signs of the times”, the ways in which History moves pages of the Gospel. To inspect them, to question their meaning is not only the responsibility of the Pope, but of every woman and man of good will called to give their contribution to put an end to the ongoing bloodbath, and from here onwards, also to always keep open the channels where — between realism and utopia — hope finds some space. And where wanting peace cannot just be not wanting war.

Marco Roncalli