Pope John XXIII signs his encyclical "Peace on Earth" ("Pacem in Terris") at the Vatican in this 1963 file photo. Considered a highlight in Catholic social teaching, the encyclical addresses universal rights and relations between states. (CNS photo)

‘Pacem in Terris’ at 60

The message of Pope St. John XXIII’s final writing is especially relevant today

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This month the Church commemorates the 60th anniversary of Pope St. John XXIII’s most influential and final writing: Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), published only two months before his death. In this final encyclical from the saintly pope, devoted to one of the great themes of his pontificate and later of the Second Vatican Council he called, we find a key to the interpretation of his life’s work and the work of the council he inspired.

For those of us accustomed to hearing of St. John XXIII as a revolutionary figure in the life of the Church because of his initiating Vatican II, the general orientation of Pacem in Terris likely comes as quite a surprise.

The first paragraph sets out a classical conception of peace derived from St. Augustine: the tranquility of order. In Book 19 of “The City of God,” St. Augustine states, “The peace of all things is the tranquility of order,” and Pope John likewise affirms at the very beginning that, “Peace on Earth — which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after — can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.”

This is not just the opening salvo, though. Throughout the encyclical, Pope John makes his place within the classical inheritance of papal teaching on rights and social order apparent. Quoting Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei — hardly a favorite papal document of those advocating for a revolutionary, new understanding of the Church’s relationship to society — the pope emphasizes the importance of a ruling authority with God as its author to hold together the order of society. Likewise, quoting Pius XII, he argues that the Christian faith upholds the understanding of right reason that divine authority — rather than the assent of the people — is necessary for civil authority to guarantee true peace.

John XXIII’s approach to peace, then, is decidedly classical in nature, but this should not lead us to believe that what he proposes is merely a repetition of unworkable proposals from decades past. The Augustinian approach of peace as the tranquility of order provides an essential insight often lost to the world, and it is particularly important for the message St. John wanted to send to the world amid the nuclear arms race: Peace is much more than a mere lack of war.


In Pacem in Terris, St. John XXIII investigates four different kinds of orders: order among men, order between men and states, order among states, and relationships between states and world communities. While the latter two sections contain the teachings for which the encyclical is most famous, the sections that touch on individuals offer illuminating points for further reflection as well.

John XXIII emphasizes in the first section the right to “profess [one’s] religion both in private and in public” (No. 14). This right of religious exercise goes beyond freedom of worship and to the full life of the person of faith in society. That this is the case can be seen in the second section, when he emphasizes the duties of the state with respect to the spiritual dimensions of the common good. First, it bears noting that the essentially classical orientation of Pacem in Terris is visible in the encyclical’s assertion that, “The attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of civil authorities” (No. 54). This is drastically different from the predominant modern political theory of the West, which holds that political authority exists primarily to protect the rights of individuals (commonly understood as “liberalism”).

Further, St. John continues the teaching of his predecessors who reacted to the newer, individual rights-focused conception of the public authority that the common good does not merely include the conditions for the material flourishing of the human person, but “is something which affects the needs of the whole man, body and soul. … [Rulers of states] must respect the hierarchy of values, and aim at achieving the spiritual as well as the material prosperity of their subjects” (No. 57).

Not just any conception of the good of men’s and women’s souls will do, though. The pope clearly has in mind the highest good of the human person: “Thus the measures that are taken to implement the common good must not jeopardize his eternal salvation; indeed, they must even help him to obtain it” (No. 59). Given this conception of the common good, it is not surprising that he includes the provision of “ample facilities for the practice of religion” (No. 64) as part of the “essential services” ensured by “the public administration.”

All this could seem to be either completely lacking in applicability to the separation of church and state present in the United States and other liberal democracies, a shadow of formerly Catholic Europe still lingering in the pre-Vatican II Magisterium, or as a statement about the needs of developing countries.

A Course Forward

A survey, though, of political theorists in 2023 might tell a different story. There is an increasing consensus that the United States and the Western world more broadly are moving into a “post-liberal” moment in which the common good has the potential to come back to the forefront of the organization of society. And after the individual rights-focused politics of the modern era, a new religious fervor is seen by many to grip both sides of the political spectrum.

The interventions of the papal magisterium in response to modernity before the Second Vatican Council are frequently identified with a reactionary tendency to pull the world and the Church back into the past, but Pacem in Terris charts a course forward that transcends our typical understandings of partisan politics. Maintaining an approach to social issues in continuity with his predecessors while discussing the order that ought to exist in society, John XXIII’s conclusions regarding other issues make the document much harder to place on our contemporary political spectrum. He emphasizes, for example, the rights of people to immigrate and the duty of the state to accept immigrants as it is able.

Conditions for Just Peace

Even more poignantly, in what is arguably the most extensive magisterial reflection on the problem of just peace since St. Augustine, the famous issue of “just war” never appears. Rather than expounding upon the just war doctrine of St. Augustine, the standard approach for the past several centuries, St. John’s approach is to emphasize the conditions necessary for a just peace rather than the conditions necessary for a just war.

In what is likely the most famous and influential section of the encyclical, he condemns nuclear deterrence as a false peace, calls for an end to the arms race, and emphatically states that “nuclear weapons must be banned” (No. 112). Rather than the false peace of mutually assured destruction, “true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments, but only in mutual trust” (No. 113).

Most importantly of all, St. John notes that the development of nuclear weapons calls for a new approach to ensuring just relations between states: “Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice” (No. 127).

One last point is worth noting: Writing around the time of the collapse of colonialism in Africa and Asia, St. John notes the desire for greater freedom on the part of previously colonized nations and supports their aspirations for independence. “Thus all over the world men are either the citizens of an independent State, or are shortly to become so; nor is any nation nowadays content to submit to foreign domination” (No. 43).

While those nations have attained political independence, it was impossible at the time to foresee the advent of global financial and technological realities that would make those former colonies subject to what Pope Francis has decried as “ideological colonization,” through which the traditional cultures of those politically independent countries are threatened by the imposition of the values of secularized Western countries. Nor was John XXIII able to foresee the degree to which international organizations that seemed to promise the means for promoting global peace would become instruments of the same ideological colonization.

While much of the hopeful optimism of St. John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris seems to be at quite a distance from our increasingly cynical world, his wisdom and insights are still prescient 60 years later. As many countries in the West struggle to adapt to a new kind of politics that rejects much of the consensus of the post-World War II years, and the Church continues struggling to find the right approach toward appreciating and integrating the council he called, St. John XXIII’s fundamental approach in Pacem in Terris — deep rootedness in the Church’s tradition while applying fundamental principles to changed circumstances — offers a way forward to restoring the place of the integral common good of man at the center of the Church’s social thought.

FATHER ROYCE GREGERSON is a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Goshen, Indiana.


On the 50th Anniversary of the Encyclical

On the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris in 2013, Pope Francis, in an address to participants in the meeting promoted by the Pontifical Council Justice and Peace, said of the landmark encyclical: “Pacem in Terris does not intend to state that it is the Church’s task to give concrete directions on themes that, in their complexity, should be left open to free discussion. On political, economic and social matters there is not the dogma to indicate practical solutions, but rather to favor dialogue, listening, patience, respect for others, sincerity and also willingness to revise one’s opinion. The basic aim of John XXIII’s call for peace in 1962 was to orientate international debate according to these virtues.”


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