Reading Pacem in Terris, Part I

Reading Pacem in Terris, Part I October 13, 2020

With this blog post I am going to start recording my ruminations on Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris.   This blog post continues the posts generated by my reading group on Catholic Social Teaching.  To read about previous encyclicals, follow the links for Mater et Magistra, Quadragesimo Anno, and Rerum Novarum.  This post is rather late–we started reading it a month ago.  So over the next week I hope to get caught up.

The encyclical PT was published April 11, 1963, only one month before John XXIII died.  It was written in the depths of the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis had occurred the previous October. PT is a striking document on many grounds.  It is the first encyclical addressed not just to bishops and patriarchs, or even the priests and lay faithful, but to “all men of good will.”  It seems to be very much at odds with previous Church teaching, particularly Pius IX’s encyclical Quanta Cura and the appended  Syllabus of Errors.  (Available from the Vatican in Latin and Italian; in uncertain English translation here and here.)  Certainly, any meaningful discussion of the hermeneutics of continuity versus the hermeneutics of rupture or Pope Benedict’s continuity in reform, would need to analyze these two documents very carefully.

Our discussions did not look at this interesting question.  Instead, much of it was devoted to understanding what the encyclical was trying to say, and understanding its relevance, either in the 1960s or today.   John XXIII was concerned with very high ideals, perhaps even fundamental ontological principles concerning order in the universe, particularly the order that governs the affairs of humanity:

Many people think that the laws which govern man’s relations with the State are the same as those which regulate the blind, elemental forces of the universe. But it is not so; the laws which govern men are quite different. The Father of the universe has inscribed them in man’s nature, and that is where we must look for them; there and nowhere else. (par. 6)

Several participants wanted to take this idea further:  that all subsequent discussions in the encyclical are grounded in the idea that each person carries the Imago Dei, the image of God, inscribed in their person, and that a true human society can only be understood and function properly if each member sees that image in every other person.  Heady ideas, but this provoked the complaint that the encyclical was indulging in “heavenly politics” that would never actually appear in the world as it is.  This position, however, was criticized for not recognizing that the social order John XXIII was describing was an ideal.  This ideal may not be fully realized until the fullness of the Kingdom of God is established, but ideals are valuable, essential even, in showing us what we are called to become.  As Robert Browning put it, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

In this first discussion we focused on paragraphs 1-45, which lay out a theory of the rights and duties of the individual.   We went over this ground repeatedly, and so I am going to present our observations somewhat out of order so as to make them more coherent.   The language of human rights was new in Catholic teaching, and very much a reflection of the the times.  The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948, and this document aims, among other things, to provide Catholic support and a Catholic rationale for the rights it identifies.   These rights include both political rights, but also social and economic rights:

Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of illhealth; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood. (par. 11)

One member of the group argued that by including these as rights, Pope John XXIII was creating a firm justification for the modern welfare state.

A key point of the encyclical is that rights are not granted by the state, but exist a priori–from a Catholic perspective they are God given, and derive from the fundamental dignity of the human person.  In two short but key paragraphs (par. 9-10) the encyclical argues that these rights are natural–that is, derive from the nature of the human person–and supernatural, adhering to humanity as a people which had been redeemed by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  As such, rights are inalienable.

An important consequence of this is that rights are universal:  they come not from citizenship in particular nations, but from being members of the human family (par. 25).  I noted that part of this came from dealing after World War II with stateless persons:  people (such as ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia) who had been expelled from their countries and stripped of their citizenship.    In addition, the majority of Palestinians today are stateless persons, living in Israel or neighboring Arab countries, but not citizens.  The encyclical specifically addresses their rights.   One objection that was raised to this was what meaning do rights have if they are not enforced by nation states?  Furthermore, what do universal rights mean when different states protect different rights, or protect the same rights differently?  (The one example mentioned was the right to health care, which is treated very differently in Western Europe than it is in the United States.)

Two responses, neither completely satisfactory, were made.  First was the fact that just because a state denies or does not enforce specific rights does not invalidate their existence.  For instance, Chinese oppression of the Uighurs, does not mean that the Uighurs do not have rights–rather their rights are being violated.  Other governments and non-governmental actors can apply pressure on states to protect the universal rights of people within their territory.  (Indeed, there is limited evidence that pressure from outside China about their treatment of the Uighurs has made the Chinese government uneasy, though it is not clear if this will result in any change of policy.)  Second, the Catholic Church itself, by highlighting and arguing for universal human rights, becomes a kind of supranational actor upholding, or at least calling attention to their universality.  This begs the question, however, as to whether the Church even has the moral authority to be listened to on these questions.

This led to the question of whether rights were becoming more universally respected. If they were, then the good (which comes from God) is becoming more present in the world, and the world is becoming better.  We promptly went off on an unresolved tangent, with various statistics and metrics for determining if the world is “better off” being cited.  This is a tricky, and perhaps ultimately unresolvable question.  I will confess that I do not find the arguments of Steven Pinker persuasive, though I have argued that things are slowly getting better.  (It is very much a matter of what you measure, and it is very often a case of two steps forward and one step back.)  This portion of the discussion ended when one member referred us to the chilling poem by Thomas Merton, Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site With Furnaces.  Whether or not things have gotten better, the capacity for them to become much worse remains in all of us.

On another tangent, we looked at another implication of the universality of rights:  the rights of women and racial minorities re specifically mentioned in the encyclical.   It notes that “on the doctrinal and theoretical level, at least, no form of approval is being given to racial discrimination.” (par. 44). But, presumably aware that even as legally sanction racism was fading, it was still persisting in practice, it added that

Truth calls for the elimination of every trace of racial discrimination, and the consequent recognition of the inviolable principle that all States are by nature equal in dignity. (par. 86)

The inclusion of states is a reference to the end of colonialism (see also par. 42) and the insistence that the newly independent countries of Africa, with Black citizens and government, were equal to the white ruled European states.  As I write this I am reminded, unfortunately, of President Trump’s dismissive comments about Haiti and Africa being “shithole countries.”  Also, as we were discussing this, I noted that while the encyclical praised the end of colonialism, it said nothing about economic imperialism, a topic which had been mentioned in Quadragesimo Anno.   It was suggested that this was a consequence of context:  writing during the Cold War, when political issues (and military force) were at the forefront, made economic issues secondary.   This may be true, though economic rights are mentioned multiple times in the document.  This is a point which merits further study.

This encyclical is also remarkable in that it speaks directly to the rights of women.  For the first time in a Catholic social encyclical, women appear not as objects, but as subjects, with agency and a dignity that is their own:

Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons. (par. 42)

In particular, in the domestic sphere of the family, “both the man and the woman enjoy equal rights.” (par. 15)  I think that it is fair to say that John XXIII has, in these brief passages, introduced feminism into Catholic social thought.  It will be interesting to see how these ideas expand going forward, and if the Church is able to engage in a successful dialog with secular feminism.

Finally, a major point that we discussed was the juxtaposition of rights and duties throughout the encyclical.   This is unusual, and may be unique in the discussion of the theory of rights:  if so, it is a major Catholic contribution to the discussion of rights.   One thought was that this is connected to John Rawl’s theory of the social contract; however, I do not know enough about Rawl’s to see if there is any connection.

John XXIII described the connection in this way:

The natural rights of which We have so far been speaking are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person….Thus, for example, the right to live involves the duty to preserve one’s life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion…[I]t follows that in human society one man’s natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. (par. 28-30)

An important point is that for human society to flourish, each individual in it must not only know their rights, but also the duties that these rights also impose upon them:

Hence, before a society can be considered well-ordered, creative, and consonant with human dignity, it must be based on truth…. And so will it be, if each man acknowledges sincerely his own rights and his own duties toward others. (par. 35)

A pressing question, then, is how does a person know and understand their duties.  This is, in some sense, the responsibility of society.  John XXIII describes a healthy and flourishing society as a “spiritual reality”:

By its means enlightened men can share their knowledge of the truth, can claim their rights and fulfill their duties, receive encouragement in their aspirations for the goods of the spirit, share their enjoyment of all the wholesome pleasures of the world, and strive continually to pass on to others all that is best in themselves and to make their own the spiritual riches of others. It is these spiritual values which exert a guiding influence on culture, economics, social institutions, political movements and forms, laws, and all the other components which go to make up the external community of men and its continual development. (par. 36)

The final paragraph that we read sums his vision for a just society in which each member knows and respects both their rights and their duties.  While it has a natural dimension, in the end, because society has a spiritual dimension, a truly good society leads people not only to just and harmonious relations with one another, but also with God:

When society is formed on a basis of rights and duties, men have an immediate grasp of spiritual and intellectual values, and have no difficulty in understanding what is meant by truth, justice, charity and freedom. They become, moreover, conscious of being members of such a society. And that is not all. Inspired by such principles, they attain to a better knowledge of the true God—a personal God transcending human nature. They recognize that their relationship with God forms the very foundation of their life—the interior life of the spirit, and the life which they live in the society of their fellows. (par. 45)

So, indeed, John XXIII has a vision of a heavenly politics.  We may never attain it, but we must always strive for it.

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