Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Eberhard Schockenhoff

Courageous Magisterium

The Encyclical "Pacem in Terris"


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 4/2013, P. 219-231.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    50 years ago, on Holy Thursday in 1963, Pope John XXIII published the encyclical "Pacem in Terris". Eberhard Schockenhoff, professor of moral theology at Fribourg University, explains the key propositions and points out the current importance of this encyclical.


Even after 50 years, the encyclical "Pacem in Terris" published by Pope John XXIII on Holy Thursday of 1963 reads as a document of encouragement. It marks the decisive step in the long process that led to the unconditional recognition of democracy and human dignity by the Catholic Church. The encyclical appeared in a time of critical upheavals of the political and ecclesial life. For the contemporaries the memory of the Cuban missile crisis was still alive. It had led the world at the brink of a nuclear disaster by the direct confrontation of the two superpowers. After the end of the first session of the Second Vatican Council and the postponement of its further work, the internal situation of the Catholic Church remained determined by expectation and uncertainty. There was a general spirit of optimism in the Church, after the Council itself had taken over control of its further proceedings and had commissioned the preparation of new draft proposals. But nobody knew whether the far-reaching hopes would come true, and whether it would be possible to bring the promising start of the Council during the first session to a successful conclusion.

Due to its optimistic orientation, the encyclical "Pacem in Terris" acted as a catalyst in this time of interruption of the Council: it spurred the preparatory work for the second session of the Council. In terms of content, the encyclical of the already terminally ill pope sets in several respects the course, which in the later conciliar documents will be worked out in detail - especially in the Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes" and in the Declaration on Religious Freedom "Dignitatis Humanae".

The change in perspective by John XXIII becomes apparent already in the dedication of the encyclical. It is by no means only of formulaic importance, but points to the global orientation of the problems treated in it, and to the characteristic style of its reasoning. For the first time an encyclical is directed not only at the bishops, priests and faithful of the Catholic Church, but at all people of good will. This extended target group reflects a contentual reorientation that announces itself also already in the preamble of the encyclical.



"Peace on Earth", it is said in it, "can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order." Through this statement, in which he claims God as ultimate ground of all human order, John XXIII takes the line of his predecessors from Leo XIII to Pius XII. But unlike them, he chooses a new path in order to substantiate this statement. He refers no longer to a metaphysical and cosmological world order, into which the moral and political order of human society fits in; he rather takes as starting-point the anthropological realities of human nature, out of which the order of human society is deduced.


The Dignity of the Human Person

Starting-point of the socio-ethical considerations in "Pacem in Terris" is the inalienable dignity as the person, which belongs inherently to every human being. This basic idea is substantiated in two stages by reference to natural law and divine revelation. But the twofold statement of grounds of one and the same starting point does not mean that the dignity of the human person could only be recognized beyond doubt in the light of its christological interpretation. As a necessary foundation of a truly human living together within the society and the whole international community, it is already grasped reliably by the natural reason of man.

The relation between the anthropological and christological substantiation of this dignity must therefore be understood according to the model of the analogy, as it exists e.g. between nature and grace, or between reason and faith. The thought form of analogy implies a mutual correspondence of two interrelated subjects of cognition, which are related to each other by unity (in the recognized matter) and diversity (as regards the formal viewpoint from which this matter is recognized) {1}. That's why the encyclical confines itself to the comment that in light of biblical revelation the dignity of the human person must be assessed even "much higher," because the people are redeemed by the blood of Christ, and by the heavenly grace called to friendship with God {2}. The comparative presupposes that already on the first stage this inalienable dignity of the person is firmly embedded in the foundation of natural law, and that everybody is capable to recognize it reliably.

That's why the first part of the encyclical, which asks about the normative foundations of the social living together of people, is opened by the programmatic introductory sentences:

"Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature." (No. 9)



These weighty initial sentences, which in the Latin text - due to the concise Ciceronian style of this encyclical - combine intellectual conciseness with linguistic elegance, connect three trains of thought with each other. First, man has his dignity as a person, because he is inherently endowed with intelligence and free will. That's why, secondly, the rights and obligations which are associated with this dignity are not granted and imposed by a human authority but every human being is inherently entitled resp. obligated to them. Finally resp. thirdly, it is emphasized that the moral rights and duties of the person correspond to each other. The person has the respective rights in order to be capable to perform the duties associated with them.

In the further explanations of the encyclical, the insight that the rights and obligations of the person correspond to each other is repeated like a cantus firmus, but it is immediately protected against a possible misunderstanding. Human beings are by no means only to that extent entitled to the natural rights of the person to which they perform actually the moral duties which correspond to those rights. Since it is about inalienable rights, which are not based on their behavior but on their nature, these rights remain even if they insufficiently perform or act contrary to their duties. This is a necessary consequence of the idea of natural rights, for nobody could be certain of them if she would be entitled to them only to the extent of her/his actual performance of duty. On this line, sketched out by John XXIII in "Pacem in Terris," the conciliar Declaration on Religious Freedom later emphasizes that this right has its origin not in a subjective state of the person but in the human nature, which is the underlying cause of any subjective activity:

"In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it." {3}


The Right to be Free to Seek out the Truth

Among the individual natural rights, by which the dignity of the person unfolds, the right to freedom of conscience and religion has a prominent position. In several places the encyclical speaks of the right to be free to seek out the truth (cf. No. 12 and 144). In "Pacem in Terris," this formulation is used as a generic term. It expresses the freedom of the person to form an opinion, both in religious and political matters, independently of governmental interference or manipulation by any other human authority. The right to freedom in investigating the truth has in so far a transcendental function for the idea of human rights as a whole. Similar to the fundamental right to life, it is the basis and the reason that makes all other rights possible.



With regard to the religious side, the right to be free to seek out the truth implies the positive freedom of the unimpeded and public exercise of religion:

"Also among man's rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public." (No. 14)

John XXIII offered here some kind of proof from tradition: by a quote from Leo XIII he refers to the testimony of the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church who towards the Roman state asserted their entitlement to unimpeded missionary activities. With regard to the civil and political side, the right to freedom in investigating the truth is concretized in the rights of freedom of expression, freedom of profession, and freedom of information, which is regarded as a cultural fundamental right of civil society (12).

Even before the Council's declaration on religious freedom, by the unconditional - free of any precautions and restrictions - recognition of the right to the free search for truth, which is based directly on the dignity of the person, John XXIII drew a line under the ecclesial doctrine on tolerance, which dates from the popes of the 19th century and was at least nominally affirmed by his predecessor Pius XII. According to this doctrine, the fallacy has not an equal-ranking right to dissemination and public tolerance beside the revealed truth. This had the result that in formally Catholic states the non-Catholic cults could, if necessary, be tolerated by the state power. Their followers have no moral right to the public exercise of their religion, but under the given historical and political circumstances the state is allowed to be tolerant towards them for the sake of the greater good of social peace. Compared to this purely pragmatic strategy of toleration, the creation of "Pacem in Terris" is a significant step forward, because for the first time in an ecclesial document the issue of religious freedom is positioned on an unambiguously moral level, and everybody is granted the right to freedom in investigating the truth.

In substance, in "Pacem in Terris" the paradigm shift from the right to be free to seek out the truth to the right of the person is already anticipated, by which the Council's declaration "Dignitatis Humanae" later substantiates the recognition of the right to religious freedom, which is given with the dignity of the human person per se {4}. The encyclical takes up the distinction between the fallacy and the one who is mistaken, which belongs to the standard repertoire of ecclesial reasoning, and gives it a new meaning. This distinction is intended to teach no longer only pastoral leniency towards those who are mistaken and clemency in the assessment of the subjective motives which prevent them from recognizing the truth.



The distinction is rather regarded as evidence for the moral right of every human being that his/her path of seeking the truth, which is naturally always prone to fallacy but remains also open to correction, is acknowledged:

"A man who has fallen into error does not cease to be a man. He never forfeits his personal dignity; and that is something that must always be taken into account." (No. 158)


The Orientation towards Truth and the Protection of Freedom as the Foundations of the Common Weal

Since people exist inherently as social beings, they must in developing their personal identity take the fact into account that they live together in a community, and that they are supposed - in addition to their individual well-being - to strive mutually also for the welfare of others (No. 31). The relation between the individual good of the human person and the common good is one of the core issues of the Church's social doctrine. In its historical development this question was answered with different emphases. The encyclical calls upon not only individuals to orient their way of life towards the truth, and to respect each other's rights to freedom; it also demands that the civil living together in state and society is regulated in accordance with truth and freedom. This postulate seems to contradict the character of the ideologically plural civil society and the nature of the secular state. According to its self-understanding, the latter is no longer founded on the order of truth and virtue but confines itself to ensuring among the citizens a state of peace and security according to law. But this seeming contradiction is immediately resolved by John XXIII's explanation of how a humane society should be based on the truth. The civic living together is then formed according to the truth, if "each man acknowledges sincerely his own rights and his own duties toward others" (No. 35).

Compared with a tradition of social philosophical thought which identified the bonum commune with the 'purpose of the state' which is superior to the welfare of the individual, this term gets in the Church's social doctrine already before John XXIII clearly different features. They are recognizable by the fact that the bonum commune is no longer defined as a superordinate weal but as the common weal of all citizens. Its meaning and its limits can only be identified, "unless the human person is taken into account at all times" (No. 55). The common weal does therefore not exist as a superordinate overall entity above the welfare of the individuals but as the concrete ensemble of terms and conditions which enable individuals to develop as persons in the free interaction with others.



The encyclical formulates with unmistakable clarity a principle in whose recognition the tradition of the Church's social teaching converges with central concerns of political liberalism:

"It is generally accepted today that the common good is best safeguarded when personal rights and duties are guaranteed. The chief concern of civil authorities must therefore be to ensure that these rights are recognized, respected, co-ordinated, defended and promoted, and that each individual is enabled to perform his duties more easily." (No. 60)


The Natural Rights of the Person and the Perception of the Modern Human Rights Ethos

The doctrine of the individual's priority over the state community, which is nevertheless the room where the individual is able to develop his/her personal identity, provides the socio-ethical theory framework within which the encyclical as the first ecclesial document is able to adopt the modern human rights ethos, and the call for embedding the democratic rights in the nation-state constitutions (No. 75 and 144). The catalog of the natural rights of every human being, which the encyclical establishes in its first part, is contentually to a great extent identical with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on 10 December 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The encyclical expressly refers to the adoption of this declaration as an "clear proof of farsightedness," which is of invaluable importance for the path to a future peace order of the international community:

"It is a solemn recognition of the personal dignity of every human being; an assertion of everyone's right [...] which derive directly from his dignity as a human person, and which are therefore universal, inviolable and inalienable." (No. 144 f)

Although the list of these rights to a great extent overlaps with the said Declaration of Human Rights and adopts the division into liberal defensive rights against the state, in political participation rights in civil society and cultural participation rights, the setting of own priorities of the encyclical is unmistakable {5}. What is especially mentioned is the right to active participation in public life, to which the citizens' share of responsibility for the mission of the State corresponds, and the right to choose freely one's state of life, and to found without hindrance a family (No. 15 f.)



Likewise, the right to responsible care and upbringing of children is stated as primary natural right of the parents. The State is only allowed to intervene in it, if they do not fulfill their obligation. What is noticeable is the way in which in the encyclical the domestic right to freedom of movement is connected with everybody's right to asylum. It is conceived as a strict cosmopolitan right of every human being:

"Again, every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there." (No. 25)

This formulation allows every human being an individual natural right to enjoy asylum in another country. It even goes thus beyond Article 14, Section 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations in 1948. Its regulation "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution" is in the science of international law generally interpreted to mean that no one may be prevented from leaving his/her own territory, in order to seek asylum in another country, and to enjoy this, if it is granted to him/her. But from an approach that starts from the primacy of the human person and its free development, the open and largely unconditioned ("when there are just reasons in favor of it") call for a general right to asylum is consistent, even if the encyclical does not deny the nation-states the right to establish procedures for granting asylum.

The obligation of all States to accept refugees is formulated even more open. The encyclical does here not strictly distinguish between political reasons for flight in the narrow sense and migration due to poverty. Rather, it is one of the rights of the human person "to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents" (No. 106). John XXIII admittedly does not speak of an unconditional right to immigration, with which the host countries are bound to comply, without regard to their own reception capacities. But he nevertheless calls on the immigration states as far as possible to comply with the wishes of the refugees, and generously to grant them the right to stay.


The Just Order between States

The moral demand of a generous aid to refugees and a not too closely defined granting of asylum corresponds not only to the individual rights of the human person.



It is also due to the fact that the nation-states in their relations with each other are obliged to a cooperation that is characterized by truth and justice. From the principle that the mutual relations of political communities must be determined by the standards of justice, "follows the prohibition of any kind of racial discrimination and hegemonic oppression of one state by another" (No. 86 ff, see No. 44). In view of the deplorable economic situation of many developing countries, "Pacem in Terris" calls upon the rich industrialized nations in solidarity to support these countries in their economic development. But here the aid must not be used in order to create political dependencies.

In view of the East-West conflict and the rigid block formation of the states at that time, this demand collided with the then in the West prevailing foreign policy doctrines. Looking back on the experiences that have been made during the last decades of development cooperation between the rich industrialized countries and poor countries, and in light of the discussions that are held in the U.S. about political realism as a top priority for the external action of the Western hegemonic power, however, these warnings appear to be still relevant. The encyclical's request to the local power elites to be aware of their own responsibility for the future of their countries is characterized by an almost depressing far-sightedness:

"They must be conscious that they are themselves playing the major role in their economic and social development; that they are themselves to shoulder the main burden of it." (No. 123)

Finally, in its comments on the just order of the international community, the encyclical repeats the demand for an end of the arms race and for a banning on war, which, given the enormous destructive capacity of nuclear weapons systems, is no longer considered a suitable means to restore infringed rights (No. 127). Rather, the nations must generally commit themselves to a peaceful settling of conflicts by means of negotiations and agreements, to which should also contribute the idea of an international arbitration and mediation authority (No. 138) {6}.


The Common Weal of all Nations

If you ask after the common normative reference point which connects the apparently quite disparate demands for increased development cooperation between the richer and poorer nations, for the reduction of the hegemonic imbalance between the states, for an end of the nuclear arms race, for a general banning on war and for an international arbitration, you come in the encyclical upon the unfamiliar concept of the international common good.



The application of this central socio-ethical category from the national level to the relationship between states suggests itself due to the growing interlacing of states and the interdependence of economic, social and military dangers which threaten the future of humankind.

Although the concept of globalization was not yet common at that time, the encyclical sees the States in a process of growing interdependence, which corresponds exactly to this term. It emerged in the 1990s in economics and political science. The international community of states needs a new foundation, because the previous organization of the international community - due to the concentration of power structures and the predominance of individual hegemonial states within the respective power blocs - increasingly proves to be insufficient to solve the conflicts between states on a permanent basis.

The encyclical calls for a new world order - the founding of the United Nations is only a first step towards it - in the name "of the universal common good; the good, that is, of the whole human family" (No. 132, see also No. 144). An orderly state of international community of states with regulated provisions against violence and for peaceful conflict resolution corresponds to the universal common good of the peoples, because it supports the States in their task of looking after the respective common weal of their citizens in peace and security. In this way the community of states is able - due to the mutual cooperation of the individual states - to grant the highest possible number of people the necessary support to meet their basic needs and to develop their personal skills. The last normative point of the construction is thus again the welfare of the human person. For its protection and enablement the narrower and the broader concept of national and universal common good are applied to each other like concentric circles. The encyclical describes the analogy between the two common weal terms with the words:

"The common good of individual States is something that cannot be determined without reference to the human person, and the same is true of the common good of all States taken together." (No. 139)


The Idea of a Political World Authority

From the analogy between the national common good and the universal good of all peoples, the encyclical deduces not only the call for the development of regional cooperation structures, but also to the establishment of a universal world authority. From the analogy between the national common good and the universal good of all peoples, the encyclical deduces not only the call for the development of regional cooperation structures, but also to the establishment of a universal world authority.



This capstone of a new international order, which is intended on a long-term basis to secure peace, is introduced as an imperative demand. Without its implementation it is impossible to cope with the urgent tasks for the future of humankind:

"Today the universal common good presents us with problems which are world-wide in their dimensions; problems, therefore, which cannot be solved except by a public authority with power, organization and means co-extensive with these problems, and with a world-wide sphere of activity. Consequently the moral order itself demands the establishment of some such general form of public authority." (No. 137)

It can not be learnt from this passage whether the idea of a universal political authority with sanctioning power is conceived after the model of a centralized world state or, better, as the development of confederal intergovernmental structures, and as greater transfer of national powers to supranational organizations. However, by the other passages in the encyclical about the task of the nation-states it is ruled out to regard them only as temporary intermediaries between individual people and the global community, which had to be merged in a future world peace order..

But the encyclical emphasizes that none of the major world problems can be solved in a national framework. Individual competencies in the area of poverty reduction, international trade or military peacekeeping have therefore gradually to be withdrawn from the exclusive national competence, and to be transferred to supranational bodies. This can of course only be done by a contractual agreement of all nations and in compliance with the principle of subsidiarity:

"But it is no part of the duty of universal authority to limit the sphere of action of the public authority of individual States, or to arrogate any of their functions to itself." (No. 141, see also No. 138)

If these provisos are taken in consideration, the spectacular demand for a central world political authority loses clearly in explosiveness. A multicentric organization of the states, where the individual states unite in regional confederations which are connected with each other by cooperative agreements, would comply with this demand.

The idea of such a peace federation of sovereign Member States appears to be a preferable alternative to a centralized world state model, because it leaves room for the regional diversity among peoples {7}. If a group of people perceives itself as a people that, due to its language and culture and its common history, realizes that it differs from other peoples, this insistence on one's own identity, which is derived from the difference to other peoples, must in moral terms not be assessed negatively.



The shared memories and hopes, but also the jointly suffered injustice and the by it moulded collective memory make the national identity of a people to a morally estimable reality. According to "Pacem in Terris," the belonging to a people and a nation promotes the development of the personal identity of human beings - provided it is accompanied by tolerance and cultural openness to the identity of minorities, which is equally worthy of protection. At the same time, however, it is emphasized that the people are not only citizens of their respective political community but also belong to the large family of humankind. The key starting point of the encyclical's socio-ethical reasoning, the concept of natural rights of the human person, does not refer to the membership in individual nation-states but to the belonging on an equal footing to the entire human race.



The encyclical "Pacem in Terris" marks an important step in the development of the Church's social doctrine. It prepares the opening of the Catholic Church, i.e. her recognition of the modern world and its civil rights and liberties by the Council. Together with the encyclical "Populorum Progressio" (1967) by Pope Paul VI, it is the most influential statement of the papal Magisterium of recent decades. This rank must be attached to the encyclical of John XXIII, because it is not confined to lamenting over the alleged decay of the modern world. It generates conceptual visions - with prophetic power and the courage to form a concrete utopia. Although at the time of its appearance many of its proposals, as e.g. the demand for nuclear disarmament or the appeal to increase the cooperation of the hostile power blocks, were regarded as unrealistic by many contemporaries, the international politics and international law discussion followed later the path indicated by "Pacem in Terris." The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the collapse of the Soviet block, and the disarmament negotiations of the two world powers fundamentally changed the international community.

Within the Church's doctrinal development, the most important contribution of "Pacem in Terris" is the unconditional recognition of the modern human rights ethos. Here, the encyclical refers explicitly to the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. By interpreting the individual human rights as natural rights of the person, which is gifted with freedom and reason and dependent on social cooperation in order to develop its personal identity, it provides an ontological foundation for the idea of human rights.



Its substantiation from the anthropological condition of the human being as a free and communtiy-related personal being provides a theoretical base from which it is possible to explain the mutual relation of human rights and obligations adequately.

The moral obligations corresponding to the human rights are not to be seen as subsequent restrictions on the freedom of the person, or even as conditions for the recognition of the respective human rights; on the contrary, they equally originate in the nature of the person. In the debate about human rights, a definition of relations which sees human rights and human obligations as independent but complementary entities commends itself not least due to the fact that it does not provide the Chinese criticism of the individualistic culture of the West with a target. On the contrary, the in "Pacem in Terris" developed understanding of human rights recognizes their communitarian dimension in the life of the political community - without calling their status as individual rights of every person into question. The universalist interpretation of human dignity and human rights proves its power also in the way how it defends the idea of women's emancipation against every cultural relativism. The demand that women equally participate in social life, and in work and family claim the same rights and obligations, is in the encyclical seen as a moral postulate. It must universally be recognized in all cultures, for it is directly based on the dignity of the human person (cf. No. 41).

In some church circles it is now considered good form to reproach magisterial documents in the vicinity of Vaticanum II for naive belief in progress and a superficial conformity to the zeitgeist. Such negative judgments are with preference directed at the concept of "Signs of the Times." It appears for the first time in "Pacem in Terris" in a magisterial text and is later used in the Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes." In contrast, the openness to the secular culture must be appreciated as a strong point of the encyclical, and its readiness to understand the "signs of the times" as alien prophecy [Fremdprophetie] for the work of the church and the social commitment of Christians has to be emphasized positively. The encyclical invites them to take actively part in the work of the democratic institutions of their countries and to support the scientific and technological progress at all levels:

"It is not enough for Our sons to be illumined by the heavenly light of faith and to be fired with enthusiasm for a cause; they must involve themselves in the work of these institutions, and strive to influence them effectively from within." (No. 147, see No. 148)

In looking back at the development of the past 50 years since its publication, the message of Pope John XXIII's peace encyclical proves to be more topical than ever - due to its attention to the modern world and by its optimistic hope for the future.




{1} See Walter Kasper, Der Gott Jesu Christi (Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 4) Freiburg 2008, 242 f.

{2} Die Friedensenzyklika Papst Johannes XXIII. "Pacem in Terris". Über den Frieden unter allen Völkern in Wahrheit, Gerechtigkeit, Liebe und Freiheit. Edited by Arthur-Fridolin Utz OP. Freiburg 1963, No. 10. In this contribution the encyclica is quoted by the respective number in the text.

{3} Dignitatis humanae, No. 2, 3.

{4} See Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Die Konzilserklärung über die Religionsfreiheit, in: the same, Kirchlicher Auftrag und politische Entscheidung. Freiburg 1978, 191-205.

{5} See Konrad Hilpert, Menschenrechte und Theologie. Forschungsbeiträge zur ethischen Dimension der Menschenrechte. Freiburg/Schweiz 2001, 27-33.

{6} See Heinz-Gerhard Justenhoven, Internationale Schiedsgerichtsbarkeit. Ethische Norm und Rechtswirklichkeit. Stuttgart 2006, 54-62.

{7} See, however, the plea of Otfried Höffe, Demokratie im Zeitalter der Globalisierung. München 1999, 296-303 in favor of a world state that allows room for differences.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'