Pacem in terris in the light of the hermeneutics of the reform in continuity


Publisher: Cantagalli
Pages: 194
Price: €12,00

Now available in bookstores is the thirteenth volume of the Observatory Series published by Cantagalli of Siena: Ettore Malnati e Marco Roncalli, Pacem in terris. Ultimo dono di Giovanni XXIII (Preface by Most. Rev. Giampaolo Crepaldi), Cantagalli, Siena 2013. Offered to our readers as a foretaste is the Preface by Archbishop Crepaldi.



Pacem in terris

in the light of the hermeneutics of the reform in continuity


As we well know, the social doctrine of the Church is always old and always new. In it there is something that remains and something that changes. More often than not readers and interpreters focus their attention on what changes, because new things exercise greater allure on human curiosity, and also because we all look for instruments with which to come to terms with our here and now in time. This is understandable. Nonetheless, when “neophilia” takes command of this approach the correct interpretation of an encyclical can be distorted and argued not only on the basis of its legitimate new elements compared with previous teachings, but rather with regard to alleged novelties drawn from current affairs, which satisfy the palate of those who seek newness for the sakes of newness. Social teaching took its distance from such “newfanglers” as of its very first documents at the end of the 19th  century. As I see it, not even Pacem in terris was able fend off fashionable readings such as these.

On this fiftieth anniversary of its publication I deem it important to return to the text in its entirety and recover all its aspects and features, the ones that have always been part and parcel of the Church’s social teaching and the ones that form part of the response to specific issues during the early 1960’s.

Only in this way will it speak to us today as well. In fact, what might have been considered new developments at the outset of the 1960’s may no longer be so, and if people focus on them alone Pacem in terris would now be mute.

A first way to succeed in this intention is to understand that the “new things” in encyclicals do not stem, as people ordinarily think, from new facts that come to the forefront of history at a given period in time, but from the eternal youthfulness of the Gospel. Otherwise, encyclicals would have the same value and standing as sociological surveys or an updated press review.  The newness of Pacem in terris does not reside in the fact that it addressed the issue of the entrance of women into the world of labour, and hence previous encyclicals that had not referred to this, or had done so only in passing, are not outdated. Nowhere in the Gospel is there mention of the entrance of women into the world of labour, but the Good News remains ever timely nonetheless. This same line of reasoning also applies to the numerous other new developments of which Pacem in terris speaks, for example, the independence of new nations from colonial power or the rise of the working classes. If anything, the encyclical’s newness can be seen in its having interpreted these facts in the light of the Gospel. It this sense it is new, but in order to do this it availed itself of the ever present source of light, an ancient light. 

Certainly, it is also new in another sense. New facts and developments pose challenges to the Church, which lives not in an airtight vacuum, but in history. Moreover, these facts and developments compel the Church not to adapt itself passively to them as if they were hence truth in themselves, but summon the Church to draw forth from its own tradition the spiritual, intellectual and moral forces to tackle them in an evangelical manner. A great deal of confusion has arisen around this point as time has passed. The Church must not chase after new developments in order to be abreast with times. And yet its updating has often be interpreted like that, using Pacem in terris as evidence of such a thesis in a manner I retain erroneous and not correct.  The Church must allow itself to be challenged by changes and not pretend they don’t exist. In the light of apostolic tradition the Church must discern what is good for man according to the Gospel in said changes or developments, and what isn’t good for man.

Regarding Vatican Council II, Benedict XVI has indicated the way of the hermeneutics of the reform in continuity. I believe the same road may be travelled in order to examine each document of the Magisterium, and this includes Pacem in terris. In each document there are aspects of reform, but they never have to do with principles, which fall within the category of continuity.

The reform related aspects present in Pacem in terris are well explained in the two essays published in this book. For example, let us recall the distinction between ideology and historical movements, error and the errant, the fact that the encyclical is addressed to all men of good will, the request for a global political authority, the condemnation of warfare, etc. By focusing attention solely or by way of preference on changes or developments, however, entails the potential risk of setting this document, albeit unintentionally, against its predecessors from the pontificates of John XXIII himself and Pious XII, thereby losing any trace of continuity. Let me repeat this in order to avoid any ambiguity: this often occurs as a result of a precise ideology called “neophilia”, or modernism, or progressivism, which have no sense in the Church. More often than not, however, it is a matter of a spontaneous attitude, which, albeit unintentionally, is attracted to a greater degree by what is new, and this to the extent of separating what is new from what is old. 

I would therefore like to highlight some aspects of Pacem in terris where present is the ‘old’, not in archaeological terms but in the sense of tradition, in the sense of what does not change insofar as Christian patrimony. Evident when reading the following lines is the fact that these elements are rarely spoken about today, and yet they are in the encyclical of John XXIII.

The first element is the concept of “social order”. The encyclical begins with the reference to “the divinely established order” (n°1), “a marvellous order” (n°2) because it is the fruit of an infinite Wisdom. Also belonging to this order is “the order between men”, which is the title of the encyclical’s first chapter. And founded upon this order are human rights, which the encyclical accurately lists and explains.

Nowadays practically no one uses the expression ‘social order’ and the selfsame concept has literally been lost. According to Pacem in terris, however, it can in no way be abandoned. It was present in all the preceding social encyclicals and, even if not with the same words, is present in all the later ones, all the way to  Caritas in veritate. The social teaching of the Church cannot abandon it and it is not correct to forget its presence in Pacem in terris only because it is no longer a fashionable concept.

In my opinion, the reason why it is no longer fashionable may be seen in the fact that the social order refers directly to the Creator insofar as inscribed in God’s creative wisdom and not the outcome of mere chance or need. In fact, John XXIII is very clear about this: “The order which prevails in human society is wholly incorporeal in nature […] The moral order – universal, absolute and immutable in its principles – finds its source in the true, personal and transcendent God” (n° 38). “He”, continues the encyclical, “is the deepest source from which human society, if it is to be properly constituted, creative, and worthy of man’s dignity, draws its genuine vitality” (n°38). This is the theme of the “centrality of God” in the construction of the social order that thrusts any superficial concept of laicity into confusion, without falling into forms of integralism. The political order is legitimately autonomous but not self-sufficient. This is the centrality of God that uninterruptedly links all the encyclicals, obviously including Pacem in terries. The developments and changes contemplated in it do not challenge or question this fundamental principle, whose negation would entail setting creation and redemption somewhere off to the side.

Present likewise in Pacem in terris is another concept people are even ashamed to mention, and that is the fact that all authority comes from God. The encyclical’s overall framework is Thomistic, and in this regard John XXIII quotes St. Thomas. The line of reasoning is both simple and profound. Authority is the permission “to govern in accordance with right reason” (n° 47), otherwise it would be discretionary free will. Governing according to right reason means taking into due account natural law impressed in created reality and known to our conscience by inclination. But this natural law is based on God the Creator. Therefore, whoever exercises authority does so as participation in God’s authority (n°49). Whoever exercises discretionary free will naturally does so only on his own behalf, and has no binding effect on anyone’s conscience. This, John XXIII tells us, also applies for democracies (n°52). The fact that those in authority are elected by their fellow-citizens does not relieve them of this task of “participation” in divine authority.

Stemming there from is yet another point. The “common good” must somehow include the reference to God and cannot be understood in a horizontal sense alone, that being the material organization of life in common. John XXIII refers to this spiritual dimension of the common good, as well as to the religious dimension: “The measures that are taken to implement the common good must not jeopardize man’s eternal salvation; indeed they must even help him to obtain it” (n°59).

Chapter V of Pacem in terris is replete with “pastoral exhortations” and is to be read in this context.   Much indeed has been said about John XXIII’s openness to collaboration with non believers, without saying, however, that the reason for this is the presence in all persons of the light of natural reason, which shows us the way to natural moral law. John XXIII distinguishes between ideology and movements, and between error and the errant, not to open the way to imprudent collaboration, but out of trust in the presence of the light of conscience in man, even though he is inveigled by ideologies.  He also says that “in such circumstances they must, of course, bear themselves as Catholics, and do nothing to compromise religion and morality” (n°157; a citation from  Mater et magistra).

On this fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Pacem in terris, which coincides in such a meaningful manner with the foreseen canonization of John XXIII and the Year of Faith convened by Benedict XVI, I trust and hope the text of this encyclical will be understood, enhanced and rendered topical anew. To this end, however, it is necessary to remove it from the chronicle setting of its time, to which it is linked but not dependent in any decisive way, and see it within the broad furrow of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This will make it concrete rather than abstract, and timely rather than outdated.

Most Rev. Giampaolo Crepaldi

Archbishop-Bishop of Trieste

President of the Observatory Cardinale Van Thuân