“Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control. Everyone, however, must realize that, unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men's very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race, or to reduce armaments, or, and this is the main thing, ultimately to abolish them entirely. Everyone must sincerely co-operate in the effort to banish fear and the anxious expectation of war from men's minds. But this requires that the fundamental principles upon which peace is based in today's world be replaced by an altogether different one, namely, the realization that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust.”—Pope John XXIII, encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), April 11, 1963
North Korea reminds the world once again of one of the immense dangers of nuclear arms: what happens when the original quarrel between nations has been settled, but “the anxious expectation of war” remains because weapons of mass destruction have now been developed by a completely different country. There couldn’t be a better time to revisit how Pope John XXIII sought, only two months before he lost his struggle against stomach cancer, to remind the world of what needed to be done before it was too late.
Pacem in Terris, along with Mater et Magistra ("Mother and Teacher," an encyclical on Christianity and social progress) two years before, put conservative Catholics in a bind, and there’s not much evidence that matters have changed in the half century since. Here they had been, going on for years about the need for absolute obedience to papal authority—and now here was an encyclical that called into question political beliefs as hardened as missile silos. They couldn’t take back everything they had said previously, so they were left to much heming and hawing about papal naivete.
Nearly 25 years after Pacem in Terris, George Weigel, writing in Tranquillitas Ordinis, displayed all the agonies of this mind-set, in both his prose and logic, as he came to grips with this most-unwanted of encyclicals:
“One can agree with Pope John that political community is the only available this-worldly moral answer to the problem of war; but such agreement does not require one to conclude that international conflict, particularly between democratic and totalitarian states, is essentially a matter of misunderstanding that can be assuaged by mutual trust. That, for all the encyclical's relatively sophisticated understanding of the conditions for the possibility of world political community, it did not address itself to the central problem of power within that community, but instead opted at the critical moment for a solution in the order of personal spirituality rather than in the order of politics, was the core failure of Pacem in Terris."
“Core failure.” Hmmm…
Two years after its release, Thomas Merton, with his acute understanding, pinpointed the true significance of the encyclical in “Therefore Choose Life”:
“Pope John realized that his main job was one of 'clearing the air' morally, psychologically, and spiritually. To a world lost in a pea-soup fog of exhausting and intricate technicalities about law, economics, politics, weaponry, technology, etc., the Pope did not offer a series of casuistic solutions to complex and detailed questions. He recalled the minds of men to the fundamental ideas on which peace among nations and races must always depend. In other words, he tried to recreate for them the climate of thought in which they could see their objectives in a human and even a hopeful light, and invited them at least for a moment to emerge from the obscurity and smog of arguments that are without issue."