In 1963, Pope John XXIII released the encyclical Pacem in terris, which means ‘peace on earth’. This encyclical was lauded by many as the first of its kind. Firstly, because it presented the hope of ‘universal peace’ as something that could be genuinely sought after; secondly, because it laid aside heavy theological language in order to speak simply. The language used was not burdened with what we might call ‘archaic’ terminology but was easily read, relying primarily on an appeal to man’s ‘conscience’.

This is characteristic of Pope John XXIII. A shift in language was also essential to the work of the Second Vatican Council. As Joseph Ratzinger relates (later Pope Benedict XVI), many people at the Council wanted to move away from a ‘negative orthodoxy’, in which the Church offered only condemnations, to a ‘positive orthodoxy’ in which the Church truly spoke as a mother.

This is what is happening in Pacem in terris, although it goes further than Vatican II by deliberately avoiding, mostly, references to Scripture or the Church Fathers. Both of these things were the wellsprings from which the documents of Vatican II arose; Pope John XXIII, in a move to speak to ‘all men of good will’, avoided much of this by appealing to conscience and to the natural law embedded within every human person. It is an attempt to be conciliatory; a ‘reaching out’ to those not versed in the language, traditions and theology of the Church.

This approach, which has its strengths, also has its weaknesses, as the American theologian Larry Chapp recently pointed out: The primary weakness being the assumption that ‘the modern world’ cares what the Church thinks about anything.

While the Church itself might celebrate this move to a motherly language, the flawed assumption can be that the modern world is simply waiting with open ears to listen to what she has to say. In reality, the cultural and political milieu has undergone such dramatic changes over the past two hundred years that the Church should really be considering itself in a state of exile.

Nonetheless, there is much in the encyclical that is worth revisiting because of how deeply it speaks to our own cultural and political pathologies. We can focus on just a few of them.

Rights and responsibilities

The clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson frequently speaks about this. One of the points he makes is that to talk about "rights" without "responsibilities" is to have only half a conversation. One of the ailments from which we suffer, Peterson asserts, is that we have spent so long focusing upon the language of rights that we haven’t properly addressed the other side of the coin: moral responsibilities. A life that is crippled is one that simply demands what is owed to them; to adopt responsibility for oneself and for others is to begin to live a meaningful life.

Peterson’s approach to this topic resonated deeply with a culture starved of a call to responsibility. Before he ever said a word about it, though, this was deeply embedded within the Church’s philosophical framework, and it’s one of Pope John XXIII’s opening points in Pacem in terris.

To speak of rights without responsibilities is like ‘building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other’ (§30).

The natural rights of which We have so far been speaking are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person. These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other. Thus, for example, the right to live involves the duty to preserve one's life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion; the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it (§28-29, emphasis added).

Yes, there are many human rights that need to be respected, and Pope John XXIII lists many of them in the preceding paragraphs. But, in the pursuit of peace, every person must come to recognise their own duties and responsibilities – not only in living their own life, but in their consideration of society. This isn’t something that can be brought about by means of external coercion, either. ‘There is nothing human about a society that is welded together by force,’ he continued (§34).

Pope John XXIII 1959
Pope John XXIII, the "Good Pope"

Truth, not propaganda

The idea that we live in a "post-truth" world is arguably a heavy idealisation of what came before. When has the world ever been one in which truth was faithfully adhered to? It wasn’t as though the world was deeply committed to the pursuit of truth but, after the inauguration of a certain controversial President, we’ve suddenly thrown that out the window.

What we might say, however, is that the ability to discern truth has become even harder today now that we are hooked up to an endless stream of conflicting information. This was something the pope flagged in this encyclical when he urged people to reject ‘ways of disseminating information which violate the principles of truth and justice, and injure the reputation of another nation’ (§90).

At the time this document was written, concern for peace between nations was at its height; nowadays, however, the peace we long for isn’t simply between nations but within nations. Cultural and political disunity exists to such tremendous degrees that within the last ten years we have witnessed the breakdown of the ability to even talk with people who disagree with us. People seem to be living in different worlds of information and we can’t resist the urge to characterise our opponents as lower on the intellectual or moral ladder than us. What Pope John XXIII urges in Pacem in terris is for truth to govern the conduct of nations; without truth and the recognition of the basic moral principles that undergird the common good, we can never have a common good (§85).

Religious education beyond the basic

A point made by Bishop Robert Barron is that religious education never seems to leave the childish stage. He tells a story of visiting his niece and seeing the textbooks she was using as a high school senior. There was Shakepeare’s Hamlet, Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin and several science textbooks, brimming with complex explanations, equations and theories. Underneath these was a paperback book full of colourful pictures – her religious education textbook. He proceeded to go out and buy for her Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God, thinking it absurd that she was deprived of the Catholic tradition’s intellectual greatness and vibrancy.

Well, this seems to have been a problem for a long time. In the encyclical, Pope John XXIII wrote that ‘the amount of energy devoted to the study of secular subjects is all too often out of proportion to that devoted to the study of religion.’ He went to say that ‘scientific training reaches a very high level, whereas religious training generally does not advance beyond the elementary stage.’

It is essential, therefore, that the instruction given to our young people be complete and continuous, and imparted in such a way that moral goodness and the cultivation of religious values may keep pace with scientific knowledge and continually advancing technical progress’ (§153).

The call of the Church for several centuries now has been for the moral and religious education of people to keep pace with the technical and scientific advancements of the world. The scientific enterprise does not and cannot determine moral values for us. A deep and integral education in the Christian tradition is essential so that we can navigate the ethical dilemmas that come with such advancements.

The heart, not revolution

The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said that the line between good and evil ‘passes not through states, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.’ This is a classically Christian approach to the human person and the affairs of the world, and ultimately Pope John XXIII makes it his point towards the end of the encyclical. Yes, there are things that can be done institutionally and politically in order to pursue peace and truth and justice, but a society grounded in truth and justice will never come about by political mediations alone.

His point here is no doubt in response to the revolutionary fervour of the ‘60s, but he writes that some people are so filled with desire for justice that they ‘tackle the problem with such impetuosity that one would think they were embarking on some political revolution’ (§161).

He quotes Pope Pius XII:

Salvation and justice consist not in the uprooting of an outdated system, but in a well-designed policy of development. Hotheadedness was never constructive; it has always destroyed everything. It has inflamed passions, but never assuaged them. It sows no seeds but those of hatred and destruction.’

Instead, the answer to peace lies in the human heart: ‘The world will never be the dwelling place of peace,’ he wrote, ‘till peace has found a home in the heart of each and every man’ (§165). And where is this peace of the heart to be found? His answer is in God alone.