Reading Pacem in Terris, Part III

Reading Pacem in Terris, Part III October 24, 2020

This post is my third reflection on Pacem in Terris, the second social encycical of Pope John XXIII.    Here are links to Part I and Part II.  For this discussion we read the third section, paragraphs 80-129.

In this part John XXIII considers the relations between states.   The previous section introduced and justified the concept of the state from the natural law.  Indeed, the text almost seems to take the existence of the state as a given.  Last time, I noted the problems this raised for any discussion of Christian anarchism.  This time, more in passing, we noted that the conception of the state seems shaped by the 19th century evolution of the concept of the nation state, with the close link between ethnic/national identity and the state:

A special instance of this clash of interests is furnished by that political trend (which since the nineteenth century has become widespread throughout the world and has gained in strength) as a result of which men of similar ethnic background are anxious for political autonomy and unification into a single nation. For many reasons this cannot always be effected, and consequently minority peoples are often obliged to live within the territories of a nation of a different ethnic origin. (par. 94)

Since this is very much the present order of things, it is certainly warranted to frame the discussion around states as they are.  This reflects the trend, noted elsewhere, of grounding Catholic social thought in an analysis of the current situation in terms of broader principles (the framework of “see, judge, act”).  However, I think it is worth remembering that the notion of a nation state is not universal, and very much the product of historical contingency.  This point was driven home to me when reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History.  (1)  In laying the historical groundwork for discussing the political implications of the Reformation, he rejects the terminology of “the state” and instead adopts the broader terminology of  “the commonwealth” to describe the political structures we today loosely refer to as nations.  (See pp. 43-45.)   He writes:

The most prominent mark of secular identity in Europe [was not nationalism but rather] was a shared loyalty either to a dynasty (that is a family of rulers like the Tudors of England and Wales, the Valois of France, the Jagiellons of Poland-Lithuania or the Habsburgs of Central Europe), or on the other hand to a particular local corporation with ancient rights and privileges…When the conflicts of the Reformation broke out…many variations of such loyalties came into play, but dynasty and locality  usually counted for more than any chimera of nationalism.

Turning to our discussion, we we very much struck by the explicit parallels drawn between states and individuals, and that relationships between states, like those between individuals, must be grounded in truth and justice, and in the recognition that states have reciprocal rights and duties, just as individuals do:

nations are the subjects of reciprocal rights and duties. Their relationships, therefore, must likewise be harmonized in accordance with the dictates of truth, justice, willing cooperation, and freedom. The same law of nature that governs the life and conduct of individuals must also regulate the relations of political communities with one another. (par. 80)

Relations between States must…be regulated by justice. This necessitates both the recognition of their mutual rights, and, at the same time, the fulfillment of their respective duties. (par. 91).

But, while there is this parallel, the encyclical never invests the state with a separate identity, something to be exalted above the individual.  This was one (of many) failings of nationalism, reaching its nadir in both fascism and in the equation of people, party and state in communist regimes.  Though the enyclical never says so explicitly, it seems clear that the individual is prior to the state, and the state exists solely for the good of people, both individually and collectively:  “[state] authority must be exercised for the promotion of the common good. That is the primary reason for its existence.” (par. 84)  This is not to say that the individual does not have duties vis a vis the state; but these duties are grounded in the rights and duties of individuals towards other individuals and the common good.

The encyclical goes on to present a model for how states ought to deal with one another:  as with interactions between individuals, state interactions should be grounded in mutual respect and cooperation.   States may act for their own good, but never in a way which is harmful to others.

There may be, and sometimes is, a clash of interests among States, each striving for its own development. When differences of this sort arise, they must be settled in a truly human way, not by armed force nor by deceit or trickery. There must be a mutual assessment of the arguments and feelings on both sides, a mature and objective investigation of the situation, and an equitable reconciliation of opposing views. (par. 93)

The objection was raised (again, we have discussed this many times) that the encyclical never considers the reality of evil in the world, that this view of relations between states is inadequate because it does not recognize that there might be evil states and offers no guidance on how to deal with them.  There is no sense of how one might police unjust actions by nations, just as one polices unjust actions by individuals.   This obliquely referred to, but only in the negative:

no country has the right to take any action that would constitute an unjust oppression of other countries, or an unwarranted interference in their affairs. (par. 120)

The adjective “unwarranted” suggests that there might be situations in which intervention is warranted, but this is never discussed.  In particular, what constitutes an “unwarranted intervention”?   Looking to the period between WW II and the encyclical, was the Korean War warranted?  Was the British/French seizure of the Suez Canal unwarranted?  What about the US back coups in Iran and Guatemala?

Writing against this backdrop, in which powerful states regarded their actions as always being just, and in the time after the Cuban Missile Crisis, John XXIII is proposing a model for state action which is very different.  He wants to establish the guiding principles for how states should act in order to prevent both oppression and unwarranted interference.

One member of our group suggested that this vision has in fact guided state interactions since 1960.  Despite many obvious failures, cooperation among nations has increased, and massive wars, particularly another world war, have been prevented.   He made reference to the decline in the absolute number of deaths by war since WW II, as shown by this table:

(Downloaded from:  Our World in Data , used with permission.)

This interpretation was challenged, noting that while there have not been any major power wars since the Korean War, there have been many surrogate and proxy wars.  And while the total number of deaths are down, they are down from a horrifically high number, and war still remains a scourge and no less deadly for the people involved.  On the other hand, despite the many obvious failures, the idea that states should exist peacefully and interact with one another through cooperation has had a powerful impact on how states view themselves.  Even when they do not act in this way, it remains an ideal they subscribe to, albeit at times hypocritically.  (As some wag put it, hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.)

This led to a discussion of the just war theory, or rather its absence from the encyclical.  War is not seen as an instrument of statecraft that must be only be conducted in a civilized way for the right reasons:  war is regarded as a failure with potentially catastrophic consequences.  With the threat of nuclear war front and center, the encyclical begins to lay out a Catholic theory of non-violence:

Men nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms.

We acknowledge that this conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice. (par. 126-127)

There has long been a quiet thread of non-violence in Catholic thinking, but it is only in the 20th century that it has emerged from the shadows:  Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, Oscar Romero, Pax Christi, Caritas International, and the Community of Sant’Egidio.  The last two, in particular, were identified by one member of our group for their work to not just discuss non-violence as an abstract ideal, but to actively promote peacemaking and non-violence as a practical alternative for relations between states.

The encyclical focused on one specific goal of peacemaking:  nuclear disarmament.  The arms race, involving both conventional and nuclear weapons is condemned:

Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. (par. 112)

The balance of power, maintained through vast stockpiles of weapons, is no longer seen as a legitimate way of keeping the peace:  peace must proceed from justice and cooperation for the mutual good, as outlined above:

the fundamental principles upon which peace is based in today’s world [must] be replaced by an altogether different one, namely, the realization that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust. (par. 113)

Many factors–including in some small but significant way, Vatican diplomacy–led to nuclear disarmament becoming a real possibility.  The first treaty, the limited test ban treaty, was signed in August, 1963, just months after PT was published.  It was followed by a series of treaties that reduced nuclear stockpiles.   Though the process has stopped and in some cases reversed, with the US and Russia withdrawing from various treaties, there remains substantial grounds for hope.  Since 1998, when Pakistan tested a nuclear weapon, only North Korea has had a nuclear test blast.  Forty nine nations have signed the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.  Though not a governmental priority, many organizations in the US and abroad continue to press for nuclear disarmament.  I want to give a shout out to the Consistent Life Network (full disclosure, I am on their board) for their work, and the work of their member organizations for nuclear disarmament.

Our discussions concluded with some reflections on the interplay between the individual and the state in peacemaking.  We cannot have peace and justice between nations until we live peace and justice in our own lives.  This peace cannot be an internal thing–peace at home for “us” but war and violence abroad for “them”.  We need to build a peace in our lives that extends the bonds of fraternity to include all people and all nations.   The final paragraph of this section shared this goal in the language of love:

We are hopeful, too, that they will come to a fairer realization of one of the cardinal duties deriving from our common nature: namely, that love, not fear, must dominate the relationships between individuals and between nations. It is principally characteristic of love that it draws men together in all sorts of ways, sincerely united in the bonds of mind and matter; and this is a union from which countless blessings can flow. (par. 129)


(1) Beginning today, I am going to make an effort to no longer give links to books at Amazon.  Rather, I am going to give them to, a website dedicated to helping independent book stores survive and thrive in an online retail environment.  Neither I nor the blog receives  financial consideration for this, just as we received no money from Amazon.  I got this idea after I followed a link on a fellow blogger’s post.   (Thanks for the idea Julia!)

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