Fifty years ago today Blessed John XXIII revealed his encyclical on human rights and global governance called Pacem in Terris — Peace on Earth. And given what’s going on among nations today, this anniversary provides an opportunity to gauge the progress — or lack of it — since Pope John produced what Catholic Relief Services’ John Rivera called his “groundbreaking” document.
We’re five decades removed from the encyclical and to be honest, the world remains a mess.
Thousands, nobody is sure exactly how many, are dying weekly in an internal war in Syria. In recent days there has been speculation that the regime of President (some might say dictator) Bashar al-Assad has resorted to using chemical weapons on the rebels who are trying to throw him out of office.
The Israeli’s and Palestinians are at it again. Missiles from the Occupied Territories have been launched into Israel, and the Israeli Air Force has responded with sorties against Palestinian sites in the never-ending dance of destruction that is the Middle East.
What’s been getting the most attention in the United States recently, however, has been the saber-rattling and junior-high-school braggadocio coming out of North Korea and its new leader Kim Jong Un. Last week Kim’s government in Pyongyang announced that the region had been pushed to the “brink of war.” Another news release from that dictator’s government said the “hour of explosion is almost at hand,” though this week the rhetoric has been toned down a bit.
But last Friday various international news agencies reported that the North Koreans had moved two medium-range missiles to a launching base on that country’s eastern seacoast. The missiles are believed to be capable of reaching U.S. military facilities on Guam — assuming they fly accurately.
There are several international intelligence news sites that indicate the North Koreans have enough weapons-grade nuclear material for a few atomic bombs. But those same sites also note that the country appears to be years away from developing the ability to make the bombs small enough to put on the head of a missile.
There is no doubt, though, that North Korea wants to have its own arsenal of atomic weapons. As a result, so does South Korea.
So here we are a half-century removed from Blessed John XXIII’s effort to lead us to “Peace on Earth” and nations that still have starving populations, such as India and Pakistan, are spending billions to acquire and maintain the bomb.
If only we could follow the teachings of Pope John XXIII.
Fifty years ago he told us that “the solid peace of nations consists … in mutual trust alone.” He said it was impossible to imagine that in the atomic era war “could be used as an instrument of justice.”
And he concluded, according to a synopsis of the encyclical made available last week by Catholic Relief Services, that “the arms race should cease, stockpiles (of nuclear weapons) should be equally and simultaneously reduced, nuclear weapons should be banned, and there should be an agreement on progressive disarmament and an effective method of control.”
Now, with talk of war on the Korean peninsula in the news once again, with bullets and bombs still flying in the Middle East, we need to re-visit Blessed John’s words. We need to remember that they were written shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, at a time when Europe was divided along an Iron Curtain and our Strategic Air Command had B-52 bombers in the air around the clock, ready to deliver
their nuclear payloads if our nation was attacked.
Yet the encyclical — addressed to “all people of good will” — was at its heart optimistic. The pope who convened the Second Vatican Council and wrote Pacem in Terris was an optimist who thought, despite all the evidence to the contrary, peace was possible.
Perhaps The New York Times captured his spirit best when they wrote, following the release of the encyclical, that “John XXIII’s basic doctrine is that the common humanity which binds all men and all nations is more important than the doctrinal or racial differences which divide them.
“It will not be easy to realize this program in a world riddled by suspicions, jealousies and hatreds,” the Times wrote, “but it can be done if the leaders of the world follow the pope’s example and rise above national and doctrinal hatreds that lead only to disaster.”