When Pope John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris in 1963, the Second Vatican Council was still in progress. It was the time of the Cold War, the erection of the Berlin Wall, and a growing threat of nuclear war. In fact Pacem in Terris was a response to the Cuban missile crisis in which the world narrowly avoided a nuclear war. It is also known by the English title Peace on Earth.
Pacem in Terris focuses on issues of peace in a nuclear age. It revisits the application of the just war theory criteria in the light of the development of these new weapons of mass destruction. It examines the relationships among human beings, relationships between citizens and public authorities, relationships between states, and finally, relationships among the people and states in the international community. It sets out rights and duties in all of these areas.
While Pope Pius XII was so disappointed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that he passed it over in silence, John XXIII welcomed and affirmed a broad range of human rights in this encyclical. It was seen as a Catholic charter of human rights.
Pacem in Terris’ methodology is deductive and classicist. It declares that peace can only be achieved by obeying God’s law. After setting out principles deduced from the natural law for each area covered, the encyclical examines the “characteristics of the present day” or “signs of the times”. Part V, which is devoted to pastoral exhortations, makes an appeal to Scripture in its last few paragraphs.
Contribution to Catholic Social Teaching
It was the first time a major Catholic Social Teaching document was addressed not just to Catholics but to all people of good will. It was also the first time a social encyclical used the language of ‘signs of the times’. This indicates the beginning of a shift in the theological methodology of the teachings. Pacem in Terris is also notable for its detailed reflection on human rights. It remains one of the most extensive listing and affirmations of human rights in Catholic Social Teaching.