‘Pacem in Terris’ at 50

In the course of preparing “The End and the Beginning,” the second volume of my biography of John Paul II, I was struck by a historical coincidence that isn’t much remarked these days: the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962 coincided almost precisely with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Pope John XXIII solemnly opened the Council on Oct. 11; national security adviser McGeorge Bundy showed President Kennedy reconnaissance photos of Soviet missile and bomber emplacements in Cuba on Oct. 16; and while the Council sorted itself out, the world held its breath during 13 days at the brink of nuclear war. That shattering experience had two important impacts on the remainder of Pope John’s pontificate: it strengthened the pope’s determination to explore the possibility of a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union and the communist regimes it controlled in east central Europe; and it helped inspire the pope’s 1963 encyclical, “Pacem in Terris,” whose very title, “Peace on Earth,” evoked a widely-shared aspiration in the wake of the October 1962 superpower showdown.

The new Vatican “eastern politics”—the Ostpolitik, as it became known—cannot claim much success. Soviet persecution of Christian churches actually increased during the years of John XXIII. The Ostpolitik of Pope John’s successor, Paul VI, destroyed much of the Church’s credibility in Hungary, did little to ease the pressure on Catholics in what was then Czechoslovakia, and created circumstances that led to serious penetration of the Vatican by Soviet-bloc intelligence agencies. Perhaps the one important accomplishment of the Ostpolitik was that it became, in a wholly unanticipated way, a kind of diplomatic façade behind which the unexpected Polish pope, John Paul II, could hammer on Soviet-bloc human rights violations even as Vatican diplomats continued a series of negotiations that were going essentially nowhere.

What about “Pacem in Terris,” though? As the Church and the world marked the encyclical’s golden jubilee this past April, what might be considered its lasting accomplishments?

The first of these achievements had to do with the encyclical’s global reception: the universal resonance of “Pacem in Terris” confirmed the late-20th century papacy as a unique voice of moral authority among the deeply divided and often-conflicted tribes of Planet Earth. That authority has continued into the 21st century, thanks to the two U.N. addresses of John Paul II and the “September Addresses” of Benedict XVI in Regensburg, Paris, London and Berlin. That same moral authority has already begun to be wielded by Pope Francis who, in his post-election address to the diplomats at the Holy See, reminded the assembled representatives of worldly power that there can be no peace without reference to the moral truths embedded in the world and in us—truths that are accessible to everyone by the use of reason.

The second enduring impact of “Pacem in Terris” was to have inserted the Catholic Church fully into the late-modern debate over human rights, aligning the Church with those human rights activists who played key roles in bringing down the Berlin Wall and ending communist tyranny in Europe—a historic transition that made “peace on earth” (including the disarmament for which John XXIII called) more of a reality. Like many United Nations documents, and like subsequent Church statements, “Pacem in Terris” engaged in “rights talk” rather loosely, with virtually every imaginable social good being described as a “human right.” That has led to some enduring issues, even problems, in the explication of Catholic social doctrine. But matters of conceptual precision notwithstanding, there should be no doubt that the Church’s deployment of the language of “human rights” has helped magnify its moral voice in world affairs.

Then there is “order,” a recurring idea throughout the encyclical. The world is being “ordered”—shaped and governed—by various contending forces, John XXIII noted; by what principles will that “ordering” continue? By brute force—political, military, or economic? Where is the space in world affairs in which moral principles can act as a leaven in the world’s getting itself in order?

An urgent question today, just as it was in 1963.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash