Pacem in Terris: the Vatican’s Call to Peace

I gave a presentation at Villanova University last week on the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII. I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit what is arguably one of the most important statements on peace with justice ever issued by the Vatican, with insights and exhortations that remain relevant today. Here are a few of the document’s highlights.

Rights. Pope John defines peace as an ordered society based on moral principles and rooted in rights, of which the most important is the right to life. John goes beyond the narrow focus on the fetus prevalent today to emphasize what he calls “a worthy standard of living.” Every person “has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life,” including the opportunity to work and earn a just wage (paragraphs 11, 18, 20).

The Common Good. All people and governing authorities have duties to ensure that the means of sustenance are available to all. Unless civil authorities “take suitable action,” inequalities “tend to become more and more widespread.” Governments must therefore develop “essential services,” including “public health,” and see to it “that insurance systems are made available” so that “no person will be without the necessary means to maintain a decent standard of living” (paragraphs 63, 64).

Truth. Pope John calls for the “elimination of racism.” He urges those with power and wealth to “lend mutual assistance” to others. Countries with the greatest levels of development have an “obligation to make a greater contribution to the general development of the people” (paragraphs 86-88).

The Imperative of Disarmament. John notes “with deep sorrow” the “vast outlay of intellectual and economic resources” on armaments, which imposes heavy burdens on the countries affected and deprives other of the “collaboration they need to make economic and social progress.” The encyclical demands that nuclear weapons be banned and that all nations agree on “a fitting program of disarmament” (paragraphs 109, 112).

A Call to Public Action. Pacem in Terris ends with a call for people of good will to “take part in public life” to help others. He identifies “the great tasks of magnanimous men” and women and urges every believer to become a “spark of light,” a “vivifying leaven” to help create a social order founded on truth and justice (paragraphs 163, 164, 167).

It’s a remarkable document that deserves to be read and studied as an enduring guide to public policy and inspiration for personal commitment.

Music for Peace

This past weekend I participated in a pre-concert discussion of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at a performance by the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. At the concert I also accepted a plaque on behalf of the University of Notre Dame for its support of the Symphony. Then I settled into a box seat to listen to a magnificent rendering of Britten’s demanding work under the skilled direction of Maestro Tsung Yeh.

The pre-concert discussion provided an opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of Britten’s masterpiece. The work is a powerful indictment of war. It was commissioned and first performed in 1962 on the occasion of the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, built alongside the ruins of the historic St. Michael’s Cathedral, which was destroyed by German bombers in November 1940 during a massive raid that also damaged thousands of homes and killed hundreds of residents.

Britten’s libretto is based on the traditional Latin requiem mass, but it also draws extensively from the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen was a young British army officer who served in World War I and was killed in action just a week before the armistice was signed in November 1918. Owen wrote vividly realistic and often shocking poems that depicted the true horrors of war. He rejected the propagandistic portrayals of heroic war that were typical of his time (and that are occasionally heard today). His war poetry had enormous influence in the years after World War I and is considered among the finest ever written.

In one of the poems selected by Britten, Owen bleakly recasts the ending of the story of Abraham and Isaac, as the angel of mercy descends to stop Abraham’s sacrifice:

Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not do so
But slew his son
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In choosing Owen’s poetry for his text, Britten memorialized the horrors of both world wars. The Requiem is a tribute to all who were killed and all the great monuments of human creativity like St. Michael’s cathedral that were destroyed in those conflagrations. Britten manages to be respectful of the sacrifices of those who suffered in war while condemning the institution of war itself. His work is an outcry against what Owen called ‘the pity of war,’ a reminder of the destructiveness of modern warfare and its vast toll in lives lost. The Requiem reflects Britten’s deep opposition to war in all its forms, including the threat of nuclear war, which loomed large at the time he was writing this work in the early 1960s.

For the three vocalists in the premier performance, Britten commissioned a tenor from England, a baritone from Germany and a soprano from the Soviet Union. This was a gesture of reconciliation, a statement that all sides suffered in war and could come together through art to voice a common rejection of violence. The enemy is not the people of the other side, he was saying, but the institution of war itself.

Performances of the Requiem are a reminder of the horrors of war but also a plea for peace and reconciliation, for the resolution of jarring disharmonies through the magical beauty of music.

Hagel and Kerry: No Arm-Chair Warriors

I am encouraged by the nominations of Vietnam veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry to the top cabinet posts of Defense Secretary and Secretary of State. It feels like a long overdue acknowledgment and recognition of the experiences of our generation. Perhaps it will reflect and reinforce the deep skepticism toward war many of us learned from serving in the military during that time.

Our country is usually safer and less prone to sanctify military action when our decision-makers have experienced the suffering and horrors of war. Spare us the arm-chair warriors (‘chicken hawks’ the veterans derisively call them) sacrificing soldier lives for geopolitical fantasies.

When I saw the photos published in last week’s New York Times of Hagel and Kerry in their class A uniforms, so young and uncertain, I could see myself many years ago. Like Hagel, I was an enlisted man, never rising above the rank of Spec 4, the same as Hagel’s rank in the photo.

Hagel and Kerry were on the front lines of battle and were wounded in combat. I was stationed safely back in the States playing in the army band. But we were part of the same turbulent, perplexing experience of serving in an unpopular and unjust war.

Vietnam shaped our lives profoundly. As he was medevaced out of the country, Hagel vowed “to do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.” Kerry returned to civilian life to become a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testifying in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

I spoke out against the war as an active duty soldier, part of the GI peace movement that spread through the military in those years. I spent my time when not on duty circulating petitions and organizing protests among fellow soldiers. When military commanders punished us for being ‘troublemakers,’ we filed a law suit in federal court to defend our First Amendment rights.

The Vietnam experience drove me to spend my life trying to prevent war and now to researching and teaching ways of building peace and resolving conflicts nonviolently.

I hope Hagel and Kerry will bring more realistic, less militaristic perspectives to U.S. military and foreign policy. Perhaps our nation can finally learn the lessons of Vietnam (and also of Iraq and Afghanistan), to avoid the temptation of war and focus on building peace through international cooperation.

Teaching peace to high school students

Gladys Muhammad with students
High school students learning about peace studies through Notre Dame's Summer Scholars program got a firsthand look at community-level peace and justice work in South Bend from Gladys Muhammad, director of the Charles Martin Youth Center and associate director of the South Bend Heritage Foundation.

Last week we taught peace studies to a group of 18 high school students as part of Notre Dame’s pre-college Summer Scholars program. It was intense (teaching 9 to 4 every day for two weeks) and challenging (keeping 17-year olds focused on a subject they’ve never studied before). It was also deeply rewarding. Continue reading “Teaching peace to high school students”