Skip Navigation Links
Catholic News
Special Reports
Google Plus
RSS Feeds

About   |   Subscribe   |   Order Print Copies   |   Archive

Pope John XXIII’s passion for peace is conveyed in the message of his encyclical “Peace on Earth” (“Pacem in Terris”): protecting and promoting human dignity and rights is the foundation for world peace.

Peace on Earth: God's Dream, Our Task
By: Kenneth R. Overberg, SJ

Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Having lived through two world wars, Blessed Pope John XXIII developed a passion for peace. Shortly before his death, John expressed this deep concern in his encyclical “Peace on Earth” (“Pacem in Terris”). All of us who long for peace must heed the heart of John’s message: protecting and promoting human dignity and rights are the foundation for world peace.

Elected at age 77, John XXIII used his short papacy for much lasting good. After receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer and opening the Second Vatican Council in the fall of 1962, he helped resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that threatened nuclear war. That intensified his passion for peace and his hope that Vatican II’s renewal would contribute to building peace. In April 1963, John shared his vision of a path to peace, addressing “Peace on Earth”to “all people of good will.” Weeks later, on June 3, Pope John XXIII died at age 81.

John’s words of wisdom are still desperately needed in today’s world decades later. Let’s consider key aspects of “Peace on Earth,” including the challenges they point to in our lives today.

Pope John develops the link between human rights and peace, grounding it in an understanding of the nature of the human person (natural law) that takes seriously the signs of the times. He writes: “Peace on earth, which people of every era have most eagerly yearned for, can be firmly established only if the order laid down by God be dutifully observed” (1).

Pope John spells out the rights and duties that flow from our human nature and dignity. He begins with fundamental rights: to life and the means necessary for its proper development—food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education. We have the right to worship according to our consciences and to freely choose our vocations. Economic rights include work, just wages, and private property. Other rights are assembly and association, immigration, participation in public affairs, and protection by law.

With all rights come corresponding duties. As we become aware of our rights, we must accept our related duties. For example, our right to life brings with it the duty to preserve life. This extends to our life in society: we not only claim the right for ourselves, but also are obligated to acknowledge and respect that same right of others. As social beings, we must contribute to the common good—those conditions that enable people to flourish as human beings.

Despite significant improvements in honoring human dignity in the United States and elsewhere since 1963, the abuse of human rights continues in many ways and places. Along with prominent issues such as abortion, human trafficking, euthanasia, and the death penalty, everyday items such as chocolate, clothes, and coffee are connected to abuse. Some companies that provide us with these items use child slaves and other forced labor.

John addresses the relationship between individuals and public authorities. He stresses both the necessity for authority for a well-ordered and prosperous society and the recognition that authority comes from God. He states: “The whole reason for the existence of civil authorities is the realization of the common good” (54).

Essential to the common goodis special concern for the poor. In order to promote justice and fairness, political authorities must at times give more attention to those who are less able to defend their own rights.

Also essential to the common good are some responsibilities of civil authorities: transportation, communications, water, public health, and insurance. Our participation in public life as citizens is also crucial.

Political authorities must strive to balance competing rights and claims and “so co-ordinate and regulate social relations that the exercise of one person’s rights does not threaten others in the exercise of their own rights nor hinder them in the fulfillment of their duties” (62). Sound structure and operation of government are necessary for meeting this challenge. While it is impossible to exactly determine the most suitable form of government, John lists a national charter of human rights as a requirement.

A billion people around the world now live in extreme poverty, lacking sufficient food and clean water. This tragedy challenges political and business leaders to change public policies and economic systems and budgets. Church teaching since “Peace on Earth” has emphasized the preferential option for the poor, criticized capitalism’s priority of profits over people, and condemned the widening gap between the rich and poor.

Paid Advertisement
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster. Include ad link.


Pope John expands his focus to consider relationships among nations. He affirms the foundation of natural law as a guide, focusing on truth, justice, solidarity, and liberty.
  • Truth. All countries are by nature equal in dignity. Each country has the right to existence and to the means for development. Countries with advanced levels of economic development must not take advantage of poorer countries.
  • Justice. Justice implies recognizing countries’ mutual rights and duties. Each country must respect the rights of other countries. Disagreements must be settled by reasonable investigation, discussion, and reconciliation, not by violence.
  • Solidarity. Truth and justice are best pursued in solidarity, in mutual cooperation among nations. Civil authority exists to protect the common good of a country, which cannot be separated from the universal common good.
  • Liberty. No nation should oppress another or “unduly meddle in their affairs” (120). While economically developed countries must help those in the process of development, each country is primarily responsible for creating its own economic and social progress.
Other topics of concern include inequality among nations, ethnic relations and tensions, immigration and refugees, and war and disarmament.

Concerning war, John deplores the production of arms, with its “vast outlay of intellectual and economic resources” (109) and resulting fear among nations. He concludes that justice and humanity demand that the arms race should cease, weapon stockpiles be reduced equally and simultaneously, and nuclear weapons be banned. This will come about only when mutual trust?the result of serious thought, sincere negotiations, and faithful fulfillment of obligations?replaces fear.

Sinful economic structures undermine human well-being, and regional and religious conflicts, genocide, terrorism, and preventive war now scar the earth and people’s lives. Violence escalates around the globe. John writes: “It is hardly possible to imagine that in the atomic era war could be used as an instrument of justice” (127). The need for justice and solidarity is greater than ever.

Addressing the relationships of individuals and political communities with the world community, John describes what we now call “globalization.” Recognizing the new and growing interdependence in communications, national economies, and issues of security and peace, he emphasizes “the common good of the entire human family” (132).

Protecting and promoting this universal common good, however, is beyond the capabilities of existing public authorities. John calls for a public authority with worldwide powers and the means to pursue the universal common good. This authority must be set up by common accord and not imposed by force. It must safeguard people’s rights by direct action or by creating a world environment in which nations can more easily carry out their responsibilities.

Pope John turns his attention to the one body closest to such a worldwide public authority: the United Nations. Summarizing its purpose and structure, he affirms its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which shares many convictions with “Peace on Earth.” John concludes with his “earnest prayer that the United Nations . . . may become ever more equal to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks” (145).

Nuclear arms and climate change now threaten the very existence of the human family. We must resolve these two most urgent pro-life issues, or humanity will be snuffed out. John’s dream of a public authority with worldwide powers has yet to be realized. Instead of promoting the development of the United Nations, efforts often attempt to undermine it.

“Peace on Earth” ends with words of inspiration, realism, and prayer. John encourages participation in public life, recognizes the importance of professional competence, and stresses the need for religious education and spiritual values. He acknowledges the “immense task” facing all people of good will, “the task of bringing about true peace in the order established by God” (163). Pope John ends with a prayer that “the most longed-for peace [will] blossom forth and reign always” (171).

Since “Peace on Earth” was published in 1963, the world has experienced both remarkable success and horrific failures in promoting human rights and building peace. Peace movements and nonviolent revolutions embodied John’s vision and inspired peoples from many nations. Democracy spread through the world, but so did unspeakable violence in many forms.
            In our everyday lives, many of us face more subtle threats: the consumerism and violence of our culture seep into our values, and the loss of trust and increase of cynicism color our view of life in our Church, country, and world. How we need Pope John’s faith, hope, and passion for peace!
            Human rights and peacemaking include many issues. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do one thing. Pick one. Develop an interest and follow it. Get involved with a group. Help educate your parish. Do something, remembering Blessed John XXIII’s words: “Every believer in this world of ours must be a spark of light, a center of love” (164).

John XXIII’s concentric circles of rights and duties guide us to ordinary but real ways to honor human dignity and build peace.
  • Human rights. In our hearts and institutions, we must work against prejudices based on class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion.
  • Public authorities. We must contribute to the reconciliation of Church and society and strengthen the common good by sharing our views and values with political, business, and religious leaders.
  • International relations. Since some of those we elect make a difference at this level, we must judge whether we base our votes on the Gospel or our political party. Do we even vote?
  • Universal common good. We must learn about globalization from different sources—especially those working for justice in the developing world, support the U.N., and urge political leaders to transform it according to Pope John’s vision. 

Twenty years after John XXIII’s “Peace on Earth,” the bishops of the United States wrote “The Challenge of Peace,” a pastoral letter addressing the threat of nuclear weapons to all life. Ten years later, they wrote “The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace,”a statement on peacemaking in a post-Cold War world. They issued “Living With Faith and Hope After September 11” to address terrorism in 2001 and “A Time for Remembrance, Resolve and Renewal” on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Kenneth R. Overberg, SJ, professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, holds a PhD in social ethics from the University of Southern California and has authored numerous articles and books.

NEXT: The Four Faces of Jesus by Virginia Smith

I want to order print copies of this issue of Catholic Update.
Bulk discounts available!

I want to get digital access to this issue of Catholic Update.

I want to order a 12-month bulk subscription to hand out in my parish or classroom.

I want to purchase access to the library of Catholic Update issues available digitally.

Jeanne Jugan: 
		<p>Born in northern France during the French Revolution—a time when congregations of women and men religious were being suppressed by the national government, Jeanne would eventually be highly praised in the French academy for her community's compassionate care of elderly poor people.</p>
		<p>When Jeanne was three and a half years old, her father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. Her widowed mother was hard pressed to raise her eight children (four died young) alone. At the age of 15 or 16, Jeanne became a kitchen maid for a family that not only cared for its own members, but also served poor, elderly people nearby. Ten years later, Jeanne became a nurse at the hospital in Le Rosais. Soon thereafter she joined a third order group founded by St. John Eudes (August 19).</p>
		<p>After six years she became a servant and friend of a woman she met through the third order. They prayed, visited the poor and taught catechism to children. After her friend's death, Jeanne and two other women continued a similar life in the city of Saint-Sevran. In 1839, they brought in their first permanent guest. They began an association, received more members and more guests. Mother Marie of the Cross, as Jeanne was now known, founded six more houses for the elderly by the end of 1849, all staffed by members of her association—the Little Sisters of the Poor. By 1853 the association numbered 500 and had houses as far away as England.</p>
		<p>Abbé Le Pailleur, a chaplain, had prevented Jeanne's reelection as superior in 1843; nine year later, he had her assigned to duties within the congregation, but would not allow her to be recognized as its founder. He was removed from office by the Holy See in 1890. </p>
		<p>By the time Pope Leo XIII gave her final approval to the community's constitutions in 1879, there were 2,400 Little Sisters of the Poor. Jeanne died later that same year, on August 30. Her cause was introduced in Rome in 1970, and she was beatified in 1982 and canonized in 2009. </p>
		<p> </p>
American Catholic Blog The people who know God well—the hermits, the prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator. God is never found to be an abusive father or a manipulative mother, but a lover who is more than we dared hope for.

Spiritual Questions, Catholic Advice

Fr. John's advice on Catholic spiritual questions will speak to your soul and touch your heart.

Four Women Who Shaped Christianity
Learn about four Doctors of the Church and their key teachings about Christian belief and practice.
Adventures in Assisi

“I highly recommend this charming book for every Christian family, school, and faith formation library.” – Donna Marie Cooper O’Boyle, EWTN host

The Wisdom of Merton

This book distills wisdom from Merton's books and journals on enduring themes still relevant to readers today.

A Wild Ride

Enter the world of medieval England in this account of a rare and courageous woman, a saint of the Anglican church.

Reconnect with your BFF. Send an e-card to arrange a meal together.
Labor Day
As we thank God for the blessing of work we also pray for those less fortunate than ourselves.
St. Augustine
Catholic Greetings e-cards remind us to explore the lives of our Catholic heroes, the saints.
St. Monica
The tears of this fourth-century mother contributed to her son's conversion to Christ.
Back to School
Students and staff will appreciate receiving an e-card from you to begin the new school year.

Come find us at: Facebook | St. Anthony Messenger magazine Twitter | American Catholic YouTube | American Catholic