A Vision of Peace, 50th Anniversary of Encyclical Pacem in Terris

A Vision of Peace

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Drew Christiansen

How the prophetic ‘Pacem in Terris’ helped change the world.

‘Pacem in Terris” was born in the mind of Blessed John XXIII in the fall of 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, when he served as a back channel between President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, urging dialogue to end the most dangerous confrontation of the cold war. For the pope, the missile crisis was a prophetic moment. He offered a message of peace to superpowers locked in a world-threatening contest. Until his intervention, that contest had been defined by ultra-realist war-fighting strategies. His was the classic word of a prophet: an appeal by a man of God to men of power. Challenging the realist suppositions of cold-war strategists, he rejected the generally held notion of mutually assured destruction—that a balance of arms ensured peace among nations—arguing instead that “the solid peace of nations consists…in mutual trust alone.” Like the prophets before him, Pope John also had a vision to share with the human family. “Pacem in Terris” projected a world where peace would be achieved by governments dedicated to the fulfillment of human rights and where global institutions would be established to address global needs.

Fifty years on, John’s vision has begun to be realized. Human rights have become a major factor in international law and diplomacy. Transnational agencies have proliferated to deal with global problems and emergencies. Global governance has begun, albeit imperfectly, to become a reality. Universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity has become a reality and longtime practitioners of nuclear brinksmanship, like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, now call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

As the church commemorates the 50th anniversary of “Pacem in Terris,” Pope John’s prophetic vision has affected world affairs by promoting human rights and strengthening global governance. Though a great deal remains to be done, the world has changed considerably in directions Pope John would have approved.


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