By: Kenneth R. Overberg, SJ
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.
Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
topics of concern include inequality among nations, ethnic relations and
tensions, immigration and refugees, and war and disarmament.
- 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.
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
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.
UNIVERSAL COMMON GOOD
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).
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.
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).
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.
OUR ‘IMMENSE TASK’
“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).
LIGHT AND LOVE
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
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!
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
rights. In our hearts and institutions, we must work against
prejudices based on class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion.
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.
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?
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
AN ONGOING CHALLENGE
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.
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