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After 30 years, 'Pacem in Terris' hasn't lost its glow.

The nuclear arms race and the Cold War set the stage for Pope John XXIII's encyclical, Pacem in Terris, published 30 years ago.

To mark this milestone, and the 10th anniversary of the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response," theologians, activists, church and political leaders from throughout the country plan to gather at the University of Dayton Nov. 5-7.

In the Feb. 18, 1983, issue of NCR, Thomas Blackburn reflected on 20 years of Pacem in Terris. Now, 10 years later, he takes another look.

Pacem in Terris reads differently since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 and the apparatus that held it up toppled in 1991.

The foreground threat of nuclear war has receded, although Kim Il Sung of North Korea reminds us it can't be ignored Now, what seemed like background when Pope John XXIII wrote the encyclical in 1963, leaps out at once. He wasn't thinking of Bosnia when he warned minority populations about exalting "beyond due measure anything proper to their own people, so as to place them even above human values," but you kind of wish the Serbs and Croats would consider it.

Minorities have advantages as well as disadvantages, he noted, "for instance, no small contribution is made toward the development of their particular talents and spirit by their daily dealings with people who have grown up in a different culture."

It sounds as if John might have preferred Bosnia then to Bosnia now. Similarly, his thoughts on wealthy nations helping poor ones are read today against the background of halting, sometimes misguided efforts to do just that through the endless rounds of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But John wrote and was read in the glaring light of a Cold War that was just one damnable crisis after another. To what extent he influenced the outcome can be debated. It's popular in some circles to credit Ronald Reagan with winning the war by ignoring what the pope said about "the law of fear (that) still reigns among peoples, and ... forces them to spend fabulous sums for armaments."

President Reagan spent fabulous sums for armaments. Some of the armaments were expended against the hapless subjects of Saddam Hussein. But just having them toppled communism. The argument seems beside the point.

Catholics of a certain generation will not buy the view of Pacem in Terris as a high-minded antique because it was, in a sense, their birth certificate.

That was true from the opening. For the first time, a pope addressed a letter to "the whole world and all men of goodwill," in addition to the usual list of the faithful. Today, we might insist on all "people" of goodwill for the salutation. But then the point was that the pope was affirming what American Catholics had learned in labor unions, interracial councils and the young peace movement - that work affirming human dignity could be done across religious, ethnic, community and racial boundaries.

Pacem in Terris blessed, from the highest possible source, the transition from Catholic Action as the lay arm of the magisterium in secular affairs to the discipleship of all believers in their own spheres.

Pope John didn't mandate outcomes. He laid out principles flowing from the natural law ("imprinted in man's heart" by the Creator) in terms of rights and duties. He treated rights first, and let duties flow from them: "to one man's right there corresponds a duty in all other persons; the duty, namely, of acknowledging and respecting the right in question."

The duty that got the most attention of readers then, as the title ("Peace on Earth") would suggest, was the duty not to blow up the world. Among other things, he expressed his "earnest wish" that the United Nations "may become ever more equal to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks."

A lot of Americans today might be embarrassed if reminded of how they reacted, at the time, to that. A lot of minds have changed in 30 years about the United States' roles in the world and its relation to the United Nations. Some of our leading isolationists wanted to go it alone against communism then, and some of them were one-worlders when there was a clear and present danger.

Well, times change and minds change, and sometimes changing times change minds. (Sometimes not.) As President Clinton struggles for a rationale for doing good and avoiding evil in the world, he has to deal with a certain testiness about how things are going at home.

Clinton is not the only leader with such problems. The cornucopia of milk and honey that was to flow when history ended and we all became market democracies seems to be clogged. That may be disappointing; it should not be surprising.

We seem to have forgotten what we were going to do when we weren't distracted by a mortal enemy anymore. Not only Americans, but Poles, Czechs, South Africans and Russians are waiting for us to remember.

We can run on through inertia. We are strong. We can use our strength on warlords, wondering all the while why we should have to be the world's police force. And suppressing the thought that perhaps it is all we are good at.

Or we can turn back to first principles - to rights and the duties that flow from them. Good Pope John believed that everybody could understand the principles when they were laid out for them. So he addressed people of goodwill, rather than the enforcement arms of the church.

He preached, and be got a response from the wide audience. The text from which he spoke holds up better than either of the two great political-economic systems to which he preached.
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Title Annotation:papal encyclical
Author:Blackburn, Thomas E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 5, 1993
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