Although Blessed Pope John XXIII wrote Pacem in Terris as an urgent response to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in fact his vision for peace began when he served in the Italian Army in WWI. WWII also had a great impact on Pope John and he began to formulate what would become a Magna Carta for peace as early as 1948. Pope John’s formula for peace began a revolution in Catholic thought because he based peace on the rights of persons rather than on state power. This led to the formula repeated so much in the past 50 years, that “peace is founded on the works of justice.”
In Pacem in Terris Pope John observed three “signs of the times” that bode well for the future of peace: 1. The Rights of Workers: “workers all over the world refuse to be treated as if they were irrational objects without freedom.” 2. The Dignity of Women: “women…demand rights befitting a human person both in domestic and political life.” 3. Independent Nations: “there will soon no longer exist a world divided into nations that rule others and nations that are subject to others.” (40-42)
Pacem in Terris then runs through a remarkable list of rights and duties that individuals, groups, and governments must observe in order to promote the “universal common good.” The focus must especially be on the poor: “civil government (must) give more attention to the less fortunate members of the community, since they are less able to defend their rights and to assert their legitimate claims.” (56)
It was the arms race, however, that received special attention in Pacem in Terris: “Justice, then, right reason and consideration for human dignity and life demand that the arms race should cease…that nuclear weapons be banned….and finally that all come to an agreement on a fitting program of disarmament, employing mutual and effective controls.” (112) Indeed, Pope John signaled a return to the nonviolent tradition in Christianity when he stated: “It is contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore rights which have been violated.” (127)
The major breakthrough in Pacem in Terris was Pope John’s clarion call for a governed world specifically designated as a global “public authority.” We read: “Today the universal common good poses problems of worldwide dimensions, which cannot be adequately tackled or solved except by the efforts of public authority endowed with a wideness of powers, structure and means of the same proportions: that is, of public authority which is in a position to operate in an effective manner on a worldwide basis.” (137)
Pacem in Terris was greeted by worldwide acclaim and was especially welcomed by the Soviet Union. One of the direct results of Pacem in Terris was the foundation of the B.A. in Peace Studies at Manhattan College, the first Catholic College in the nation to offer this degree.
Not a result, but rather a partner to Pacem in Terris was Vatican II, another gift of Pope John to the Church and the world. And, proudly, Pax Christi was right there as a positive force contributing to the work of the Council.
During my ten years of service with Pax Christi International (1974-1984) I learned of those contributions, ranging from participation of the laity in the mission of the Church to specific themes relating to war and peace. I often enjoyed conversations with Holland’s Cardinal Alfrink and theologians and lay people from all over Europe who lobbied for a condemnation of total war and the right of conscientious objection.
In 1965 Dorothy Day and PCUSA founder Eileen Egan joined other women from around the world in Rome in a fast that sought recognition of the right to conscientious objection, the ban of total war, and support for positive methods of peacemaking. This witness influenced many bishops. In Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”) the Council fathers stated: “All these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude.”
Concerning conscientious objection, Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”) stated: “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too…” (78) and “it seems right that laws make humane provisions for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms… (79)
This was an explicit endorsement of nonviolent direct action and the primacy of conscience. The only “anathema” issued at Vatican II was the condemnation of weapons and policies of mass destruction: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” (80) The Council also condemned the arms race: “Therefore, it must be said again: The arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which injures the poor to an intolerable degree.” (81)
Finally, the Council called for the “time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent” through a “universal public authority” with sufficient power to stand for justice for all humankind. (82) Clearly, Vatican II signaled the change from a Church that accepted and even supported war to a Church that called for peacemaking through nonviolence and international law.
In 1983, Pax Christi USA played a significant role in the publication of the US Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace. Clearly, Pope John’s Pacem in Terris and Vatican II have set the Church on a course that will banish forever the notion that a follower of Christ could support war.
Dr. Joseph Fahey is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College and a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace.