The Modern Notes of Peace on Earth

Social Sciences Academy Hosts Discussion on John XXIII Encyclical at 50

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ROME, MAY 7, 2012 ( An archbishop, a British peer, and a cyber-mogul all walk into a Renaissance papal palace and start talking about world peace … sounds like the beginning of a joke doesn’t it? And yet last week that’s exactly what happened. This eclectic trio met at the beautiful Pio IV villa in the Vatican Gardens with some of the world’s most prominent social scientists for the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences, and fruitfully engaged with the most serious of business: Peace on Earth.

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Blessed John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, the Academy, established by Blessed John Paul II in 1990, focused its formidable intellectual energy on the application of Catholic social doctrine in the modern age. Aiding the academy in its reflections were the archbishops of Madrid, Munich and Dijon, the Right Honorable Lord David Alton, economists, experts on Catholic social thought and even Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.

Orchestrating the massive endeavor to examine the role of the Church’s social doctrine in the face of the modern challenges of globalization, secularism and the great strides forward in technology, was Dr. Russell Hittinger, William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies of the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Riccardo Muti of philosophy, Hittinger drew together the lyrical strings of speculative thought, the steady percussion of empirical data and the coloratura bursts of theology, providing the academy with a symphony for the mind.

I asked Hittinger about the conference from its overture to the grand finale. What was the leitmotif of the conference that drew the whole orchestra together?

Hittinger replied that the plenary was organized around St. Augustine’s famous dictum that “peace is the tranquility of order” — tranquillitas ordinis, which Blessed John XXIII told his drafting team to use as the framework for Pacem in Terris. “Thus,” he noted, “the PASS 2012 plenary wanted to be faithful to the original intent and to the actual expository structure of the encyclical.”

Hittinger observed that Pacem in Terris was a multi-layered encyclical, laying out different levels of order: 1) Order in the universe 2) Order in freedom and conscience, and 3) Order among individual human persons.

Moving on to the social order, Pacem in Terris recognized the need for: 1) Order among members of a political community and its authorities, 2) Order among political communities, 3) Order that ought to obtain among individuals, social groups, and states, to a world-wide community.

This underlying structure gave a coherent theme to the paper prepared by the academy members and their illustrious guest speakers.

When Pacem in Terris was published in 1963, the world had already borne the tremendous weight of the World Wars, and the Cuban Missile Crisis and its corresponding threat of nuclear disaster was still hot, sending the planet into uncharted waters of relations among men.

Today, the PASS speakers noted, new challenges face the same desire for Peace on Earth, with distinctly modern notes. Where once the world was convinced that religion helped foster order and civility, the historical narrative rewritten in the Enlightenment has slowly convinced the world differently, making religion out to be the world’s villain and scapegoat, rather than its salvation.

Professor Mary Ann Glendon, president of the academy, reflected on this theme in her paper. As Glendon noted, the 19th century opened with the belief that religion would decline with the advance of science and education. “The demise of religion was supposed to be accompanied by the diminution, if not disappearance, of all the ills that proponents of secularization believed to be associated with religion — intolerance, the stifling of individual freedom, and, of course, violence.”

This ill omen voiced by the Enlightenment has been turned into a war cry by many secularists and prophets of the modern era. In 1968, sociologist Peter Berger expressed the expectation that by the 21st century, “religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” More recently, neo-atheist Christopher Hitchens upped the ante, writing that organized religion was «the main source of hatred in the world.” Yet despite such doomsaying, religion seems as healthy as ever, though viewed with greater skepticism than before.

The really interesting question, according to Glendon, becomes:  How and under what circumstances does religion foster peace and progress rather than strife and decline?  And how can religious actors help to shift probabilities toward “peace on earth”?

Pacem in Terris offered its own analysis and remedies for the world’s ills, some of which proved prescient and others that have required modification.

“Fifty years later, Pacem in Terris is still a work in progress,” Hittinger realistically observed. “In the encyclical, John XXIII warned that peace in its manifold senses cannot be achieved at warp speed.” It is the law of nature that all things must be of gradual growth. If there is to be any improvement in human institutions, the work must be done slowly and deliberately from within.

This point was driven home by Archbishop Minnerath in his keynote address, where he made the memorable remark that prospects for concretely realizing the principles of order must be discerned “à travers l’épaisseur de l’histoire humaine” (through the thickness of human history).  According to Hittinger, Archbishop Minnerath captured the spirit of Pacem in Terris correctly.  “PT cannot and should not be read as an ideological gesture toward certain policies — rather it summoned the hard work of the Church and of all men of good will.’”

 “Difficulty achieving such a grand and complex tranquility of order is quite apparent to social scientists,” Hittinger declared. He highlighted a paper by Professor Paul Zulu of South Africa, which presented “a sober view of the almost chronic political instability of sub-Saharan nations.” Zulu, professor at the University of Kwazulu Natal and a member of the academy for almost 20 years, presented three case studies, packed with statistics, data and historical examples of violence in Africa over the transfer of power. Zulu further offered the academy an up-to-the-minute view of the dramatic situation in Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, other speakers focused on the shaky situation of Europe and its economic and political future.

“There was intense discussion of the future of EU,” Hittinger remarked, especially regarding the question of whether it can achieve a tranquility of order that is deeper and more extensive than monetary union.

This led to further discussion of global governance and its future. Both Dr. Hans Tietmeyer, former president of the Deutsche Bank, and Legionary of Christ Father Thomas Williams, an expert in Catholic social thought, commented on the rocky road that has to be traveled in reforming global financial policies and institutions. Both agreed that transparency and accountability seem to be more effective instruments of global governance than “government” in the traditional sense.

Bishop Mario Toso, of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, noted that the Catholic magisterium has always insisted that some sort of global authority ought to be achieved, but only so long as it respects two qualifying conditions: 1) consent, which is to say, that it is not unilaterally imposed, and 2) the principle of subsidiarity, respecting the autonomy of governing bodies at their own proper level.

This is far more complicated in practice than it may seem on paper. As Hittinger pointed out, if the Europeans cannot create the tran
snational module of authority while respecting these qualifying conditions, who could?  “Let’s be honest,” Hittinger implored, “both the ideal and the qualifying conditions are the work of Europeans, mostly under the gentle influence of Catholic social philosophy. How can Indians or Chinese be expected to succeed if the Europeans fail?”

On a more optimistic note, both Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia, the world’s most accessed database of information), and Michel Bauwens (Innovative Peer-to-Peer theorist) gave presentations indicating that global communications can provide an “open order” that respects the principle of consent and subsidiarity. 

It was perhaps the interaction of these modern Gutenbergs with philosophers, theologians and social scientists that best characterized the nature of this meeting: ancient wisdom and new knowledge, speculative thinking and practical know-how — a viable example of faith and reason working side by side.

The true spirit of Pacem in Terris is alive and well today.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She is author of The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici. She can be reached at

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