Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII's signature encyclical, was issued 50 years ago.
His sense of optimism exhibited in the document was infectious. His idea of inclusiveness changed the Catholic mindset. His belief in the human spirit and the need to free it from self-imposed captivity caught the imagination of the world.
A year in the making, our beloved John, now Blessed John, knew the document would be his last word of encouragement. He knew he would not have another chance to address the critical issue of world peace. He was dying of cancer, and his pontificate would end only two months after he issued Pacem in Terris.
Yes, it was a remarkable undertaking, even revolutionary. He addressed the encyclical not only to Catholics but to "all men of good will." That was a first for a papal document in the modern era.
The basic premise of John's thinking was that the bonds of humanity bind all people and all nations, and seen together, these bonds are more important that any doctrinal, national or ethnic differences. Based on these common bonds and common human aspirations, he called for an end to a climate of fear and for new openness to understanding. Specifically, he called for the end to the arms race through effective arms controls well before such discussions began between the world's superpowers.
No social encyclical since it has gained such non-Catholic attention. In an unprecedented move, the United Nations held a conference to examine the contents of the encyclical.
Years later, Catholic author Gordon Zahn wrote that the "longer range effect of Pacem in Terriswas to tip the theological scales against nuclear war and deterrence."
Pope John proposed a new world order to be built on four pillars: truth, justice, love and freedom.
The encyclical represented for the first time a fundamental Catholic embrace of the human rights tradition as found in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Many in the church at the time saw this as a church reversal and a moment in which Catholic values and wider values based on human dignity finally met on common grounds.
- Thomas C. Fox
Pacem in Terris: 50 years later (NCR Online)