The encyclical Pacem in Terris, issued by John XXIII on April 11, 1963, solidified his reputation as “Good Pope John” by calling for a world without victims or executioners. A papal appeal for “peace on earth” was well received everywhere, including the Soviet Union, after the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. However, the Vatican’s belief that the Kremlin masters took the encyclical’s message to heart was naive.

Pacem in Terris taught what? Six decades later, how does its global analysis look?

John XXIII preached that “all men are equal by reason of their natural dignity” in a new historical era. That view meant that the fundamental Catholic social doctrine notion of the common good was global, not just national, and that a “worldwide public authority” was needed to achieve “peace on earth.” That worldwide authority should prioritize human rights, which Pope John broadly defined.

Communism, despite its “false philosophical teachings,” may “contain elements that are positive and deserving of approval” and should be included in the global political community. “In an age such as ours, which prides itself on its atomic energy, it is contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore rights which have been violated,” Pacem in Terris concluded.

For all that John XXIII’s grand vision inspired hope that the world could find its way beyond the knife’s-edge stalemate of the Cold War, the encyclical’s lacunae that friendly critics pointed out after it was issued—its lack of attention to the realities of power in world politics, its misreading of the intrinsic linkage between Marxist ideas and totalitarian politics, its seeming indifference to the enduring effects of original sin in the political sphere—were,

In The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, The Cold War, and the World on the Brink, William Inboden calls the US-supported strategy of “negotiated surrender” the reason the Cold War ended. In the 1980s, an arms race increased nuclear war risks but also destroyed the Soviet Union’s motivation to compete.

The encyclical’s call for a “universal public authority” to address global issues has been called into question by the UN’s incompetence and corruption since Pacem in Terris, particularly in the defense of basic human rights.

Pacem in Terris’ 60th anniversary shows a worthy goal but a weak understanding of its obstacles.

John XXIII’s welcome emphasis on human rights as an important issue in international public life was validated by the 1979 revolution of conscience—the human rights revolution—that his third successor, John Paul II, started in East Central Europe, another key factor in the nonviolent collapse of European communism.

But Pacem in Terris’ tendency to label nearly every political, social, and economic desirable as a “human right” has not served the Church or world politics, and the Holy See’s address to world politics has become irresistible.

The famous Jesuit philosopher John Courtney Murray contended in his commentary on the encyclical that John XXIII’s ideal political community—”the free man under a limited government”—was derived from Thomas Aquinas.

Pacem in Terris was influenced by the Angelic Doctor, but where was Augustine, another great Catholic political theorist? As Augustine was, was the pope aware of the scope of human political foolishness and the risks of dictatorship in utopian dreams of human perfection?

Denver Catholic, the Archdiocese of Denver’s newspaper, syndicates George Weigel’s “The Catholic Difference” column.

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