Experts Say Pacem in Terris Had Radical Impact on Church Teaching

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WASHINGTON * Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris ("Peace on Earth") radically affected Catholic social teaching not only on war and peace, but on church-state relations, women's rights, religious freedom, international relations and other major issues, experts said at two major Catholic academic conferences here in mid-April.

The conferences--at The Catholic University of America April 9-10 and Georgetown University April 12--analyzed the landmark papal document, issued April 11, 1963, from a perspective of 50 years later.

Despite the encyclical's stated topic of peace, the speakers focused more on Pope John's analysis on the intrinsic dignity of every human person--with its implications for religious freedom, the equal rights of women, concern for the poor, rights of developing nations, possibilities of stronger international institutions to address the then-incipient issues of globalization, and other key social and political issues of church concern--some of them even more burning today than they were 50 years ago.

Several speakers saw in initial actions of the new Pope Francis signs for hope that John XXIII's Pacem in Terris vision of church engagement with the world will gain new life in the next few years.

Maryann Cusimano Love, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Catholic University and an advisor to the U.S. bishops and the Pentagon, said John's assertions on the rightful equality of women in public life continue to stand as a major global challenge. She was a speaker at both the Catholic University and Georgetown conferences.

Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, also a key speaker at both conferences, highlighted John's prophetic warnings against all war in a nuclear age and against nuclear proliferation.

Hehir, a former student of Henry Kissinger and widely regarded as one of the church's leading theorists on issues of war, peace and international politics, is a Boston priest who played a critical role in the development of the U.S. bishops' landmark 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace." He is currently a professor of the practice of religion and public life at Harvard University while also serving as Boston archdiocesan secretary for Health and Social Services.

At the Georgetown conference, titled "Human Dignity in World Affairs: Celebrating Pacem in Terris and its Legacy," Hehir called Pacem in Terris "a pivotal text in [papal] encyclical history" that played a major role in the development of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom and its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, and on Pope John Paul Ms encyclical Centesimus Annus ("The Hundredth Year"), which marked the centennial of Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical on labor, Rerum Novarum.

Two days earlier at Catholic University's "Peacebuilding 2013: Pacem in Terris at 50" conference, Hehir noted that in 1963--when John XXIII called war an irrational way to settle injustices in an atomic age--the main framework in world politics was the Cold War nuclear standoff between the world's two superpowers. the United States and the Soviet Union.

The world today is more complicated," he said, and "the nuclear question is still a central question in world politics, but not the central question."

Back in the 1960s, he added, "vertical proliferation was the issue. Today, horizontal proliferation has become the central question."

One of the beauties of Pacem in Terris, Hehir said, was the fact that against centuries of Catholic thought and practice asserting the primacy of truth over conscience in religious matters, John simply asserted, without laying out detailed arguments, that civil authorities have an obligation to protect the freedom of their citizens to worship and practice religion as they see fit in their own conscientious belief. …