The Catholic Spirit: ‘Pacem in Terris’: Reflections After 50 Years

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter, “Pacem in Terris,” it is fitting we revisit a text that has such great relevance for us in contemporary society.

“Pacem in Terris,” which means “Peace on Earth,” explores the means by which individuals and society can pursue global harmony. This peace that “men of every era have most eagerly yearned for” is just as elusive now as it was during Pope John XXIII’s time.

This is evidenced by the recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Egypt. It is brought close to home by the recent mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut and just a few days ago in the bombs detonated in Boston. Ultimately, it is manifested by the unrest in the human heart. It is only by adhering “dutifully” to the order given by God and expressed in nature that we are ever to advance in the search for peace on earth.

Made in God’s image

Giving this encyclical on Holy Thursday in 1963, Pope John XXIII explained that the only way to achieve peace is by following the order that God has ordained (No. 1).

First and foremost, society must recognize that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Each person is endowed by nature with reason and freedom, and so has great dignity (No. 3). Human beings have certain responsibilities as a consequence of their human nature, such as a responsibility to worship God, to seek the Lord’s will for one’s life and to be good stewards of his or her body and mind and of the earth.

In order to ensure that each person is able to carry out these responsibilities, each person has rights and duties which are “universal, inviolable, and inalienable” (No. 9).

The rights enumerated in the encyclical include but are not limited to: life, bodily integrity and the means necessary and suitable for proper development of life, which includes food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, necessary social services; the freedom to worship God; the freedom to choose to be married, single, or religious; to work; and to emigrate and immigrate. These rights are unique to humans and so we call them, “human rights.”

Rights are rooted in responsibilities. With each right there is a corresponding duty for both the individual for whom the right is guaranteed and a duty others have to ensure the right is respected. Thus, if “Johnny” has the right to religious freedom, it is because he first has a responsibility or duty to respond in conscience to the call of the Creator God. Others have a duty to respect Johnny’s right to religious freedom because he has this responsibility.

Respecting natural law

Another aspect of human nature is that we are social beings (No. 23). As a result, people will come together and necessarily form communities that require order and law.

Pope John XXIII called on authorities to ensure that civil law protects and promotes human dignity in accord with the natural law as ordained by God’s plan.

Pope John XXIII’s call for the observance of the natural law was affirmed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who, a few days after “Pacem in Terris,” wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

There, Rev. King quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who said, “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” If a society creates laws that are contrary to the dignity of the human person, they do a great violence to peace on earth. Pope John XXIII affirmed that the great mission of a civil leader should be “to safeguard the inviolable rights of the human person, and to facilitate the fulfillment of his duties” (No. 60).

We as Catholic Christians in 2013 need to once again visit the arguments in “Pacem in Terris” about the natural law, rights and responsibilities, and their connection to building a world of peace. And, we must be convicted in our hearts that peace on earth can only come about by ordering our society, our relationships and, most important, our own hearts to the natural law ordained by God.

Elliot Huss is a law clerk at the Minnesota Catholic Conference and a student at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

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