Pope John XXIII, Thomas Merton and the Second Vatican Council’s Message of Peace

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Pope John XXIII

(lecture to Dutch Catholic military chaplains / 25 April 2013 / Zin Conference Center, Vught, The Netherlands)

By Jim Forest

The publication of papal encyclicals is normally of interest only to Roman Catholics. Secular journalists as well as those in other churches pay little attention. But Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, signed fifty years ago this month, was a dramatic exception. Its release was front-page news, stirring up discussion and debate around the world. Many newspapers published extensive excerpts and some published the full text. Before long major conferences centering on Pacem in Terris were organized in many countries. Pope John was seen as having provided, as more than one commentator put it, “a bill of rights and obligations for the human race.”

Such unprecedented reception was due in part to this being the first encyclical addressed not only to Church members but to “all people of good will.” Here was a pope who, in the last months of his life, made an appeal for peace and did so at a time when millions of people were aware that they would more likely die of nuclear war than of illness or old age. It is fair to say that Pacem in Terris helped prevent a cataclysmic third world war, though it is still the case that such a war remains possible.

The primary human right, Pope John pointed out, the right without which no other right has any meaning, is the right to life. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war, peacemaking is among the very highest and most urgent human callings. More than ever we can appreciate Christ saying “Blessed are the peacemakers … they shall be called children of God.”

In the context of peacemaking, it is not surprising that one of Pope John’s major themes in his encyclical was conscience. “[T]he world’s Creator,” he said in the opening section, “has stamped man’s inmost being with an order revealed to man by his conscience; and his conscience insists on his preserving it.” Quoting from St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, he added, “Human beings ‘show the work of the law written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to them.’” (Rom 2:15)

The pope went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or the relationship of the person to the state. “Hence,” he wrote, “a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides men with no effective incentive to work for the common good.”

“Authority,” John continued, “is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every man has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all men are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for He alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence, representatives of the State have no power to bind men in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.” [48, 49]

In case the reader missed the implications, Pope John pointed out that laws which violate the moral order have no legitimacy and do not merit our obedience: “Governmental authority … is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men.’ … A law which is at variance with reason is to that extent unjust and has no longer the rationale of law. It is rather an act of violence. … Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.” [51, 61]

The time is urgent, John noted. All of us are living “in the grip of constant fear …. afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of … weapons [of mass destruction]. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that [nuclear] war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.” [111]

Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just: “People 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…. [T]his 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 of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.”

Pacem in Terris can be seen as an urgent appeal to governments, on the one hand, to work toward nuclear disarmament and to individuals, on the other, not to obey orders which would make the person an accomplice to so great a sin as wars in which the innocent are the principal victims.

It was also Pope John who had, early in his pontificate, and to the astonishment of many members of the College of Cardinals, launched the Second Vatican Council. He did so in the hope that such a work of renewal would, as he put it, “restore the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth.”

The fourth and last session of the Council in 1965, which John did not live to see, took up the challenge of Pacem in Terris, developing and expanding many of its themes in Gaudium et Spes, the Latin words for “joy and hope” with which the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in Modern World begins. Its publication on the 7th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI was the Council’s final action. But work on this text — known in its drafting stages as Schema 13 — was far from easy. In fact, commented Fr. Francis X. Murphy (writing as Xavier Rynne), “no other conciliar document had gone through so many stages before reaching its final form.” Cardinal Fernando Cento remarked that “no other [Council] document had aroused so much interest and raised so many hopes.” [The Third Session, p 116,117]

One of the significant achievements of the Council is the definition of conscience contained in Gaudium et Spes:

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution of the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” (section 16)

It follows that conscientious objection to participation in war ought to be universally recognized. Gaudium et Spes endorsed that objective in this passage: “It seems right that laws make humane provision for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way. (section 79.2)

The treatment of conscience marked a major turning point in Catholic teaching. Even during World War II, Catholics in every country had been told to obey their rulers and assured them that, were they made party to a sin by their obedience, that blame would lie with the rulers rather than with their subjects.

Gaudium et Spes also contains a solemn condemnation, one of the few expressed in texts issued by the Second Vatican Council:

“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”

Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were praised:

“We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.”

Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless to death were described as “criminal” while the courage of those who disobey commands to participate in genocidal actions were described as meriting “supreme commendation.”

I am not aware of any book about what went on behind the scenes as Schema 13 was being drafted and debated — it would be a valuable history — but I know some aspects of the story. Given the limits of times, let me draw your attention to just one of these.

Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)

The first draft of Schema 13 was in circulation well over a year before, after intensive discussion and many revisions, the final text was approved by the bishops and signed by Pope Paul. During those months, not only bishops and theologians present in Rome were engaged in the debate but others in distant parts of the world, including Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky in the United States and one of the most widely read Catholic authors of the twentieth century.

Beginning with his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, Merton’s books had found a vast number of readers around the world, including both John XXIII and Paul VI. It was during John XXIII’s years as pope that Merton’s concern with war, peacemaking and conscience became major themes for him. His first essay on these topics, entitled “The Root of War is Fear,” was published in The Catholic Worker in October 1961, a year before the first session of the Council.

In his essay Merton wrote about the problem of “war-madness” in which the USA and the Soviet Union were in a state of constant readiness to fight a nuclear war in which many millions of people would die and much of civilization and human culture be destroyed.

“What,” Merton asked, “is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a ‘first strike’ the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic Communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.

“What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.”

Merton went on to advocate that nonviolent methods of conflict resolution, so often ignored or ridiculed, needed “to be explained as a practical method.” Also needed were the use of traditional spiritual weapons; prayer and ascetic sacrifice “must be used … in the war against war, and like all weapons … must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war.” Also needed was the witness of personal nonviolence — a willingness “to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people.” Not at all an optimist, Merton added that “we may never succeed in [our campaign against war] but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.”

More essays quickly followed. At the same time Merton was at work on a book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. During that period Merton found himself under severe criticism from various members of the Church, including several fellow monks. His anti-war writings, it was said, were totally inappropriate for a monk. In April 1962, the order’s Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, siding with the critics, ordered Merton to stop writing on war and peace and banned publication of the book he had just finished drafting, though later the order was modified in such a way that copies of the book were privately printed in a mimeographed edition by Merton’s monastery. In December 1962 Merton sent copies of the book pus a selection of his other war-peace writings to Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr, co-secretaries of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. The couple had received permission from the Trappist Abbot General to circulate Merton’s peace essays among the bishops and theologians at work on Schema 13.

One of those quite attentive to Merton’s writings was John XXIII. Merton had begun writing to the pope just two weeks after his election in 1958. In a remarkable gesture, in April 1960, the Pope had shown his personal respect and affection for Merton by sending him, care of a Venetian friend, one of his papal stoles. (It can be seen at the Thomas Merton Center, located at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.)

One of Merton’s letters to John XXIII may have been a factor in the pope’s decision to write Pacem in Terris. Writing to the Pope in November 1961, Merton spoke of the “grave threat” of nuclear war. The “lack of understanding, ignorance and violent and subtle propaganda … conspire together to create a very unsettling mood in the United States” with the result that “many hate communist Russia with a hatred that implies the readiness to destroy this nation.” War and preparation for war had now become so embedded in the economy that, for many people, disarmament would cause financial ruin. “Sad to say,” Merton continued, “American Catholics are among the most war-like, intransigent and violent.” Monsignor Loris Capovilla, the Pope’s private secretary, later noted that John XXIII was especially impressed by the letter. [The Hidden Ground of Love, p 486]

After John’s death, Merton began an equally substantial correspondence with his successor, Paul VI. One of the papers Merton sent to Paul VI was a copy of an open letter on Schema 13 that Merton had addressed to members of the American hierarchy. It was written in the summer of 1965, just before the final session of the Council began.

In his letter Merton urged the American bishops to embrace the opportunity provided by Schema 13 to challenge widespread belief in “the primacy of power and of violence.”

“We must,” he stated, “be resolutely convinced that this is one area in which the Church is bound not only to disagree with ‘the world’ in the most forceful terms, but intervene as a providentially designated force for peace and reconciliation. We must clearly recognize that the Church remains perhaps the most effective single voice speaking for peace in the world today. That voice must not be silenced or made ineffective by any ambiguity born of political and pragmatic considerations on the part of national groups.”

Merton reminded his readers that in time of war “the average citizen” feels he “has no choice but to support his government and bear arms if called upon to do so,” as the was seen in World War II with the non-resisting participation of German Catholics “in a war effort that has since revealed itself to have been a monstrously criminal and unjust aggression.” He also noted that, even on the side fighting Hitler’s armies, “those who defended their nations in a manifestly just resistance … eventually found themselves unknowingly cooperating in acts of total, indiscriminate and calculatedly terroristic destruction which Christian morality cannot tolerate.”

Had we time we could take a much closer look at Merton’s appeal and its contribution to the final content of Schema 13. It is enough, on this occasion, simply to note that what he hoped the Council participants would declare about war and conscience was in fact said and said clearly. Of the nearly 2,400 bishops present for the Council’s last session, there was overwhelming support for Gaudium et Spes — only 75 votes were cast against it.

It is fair to say that, between publication of Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes, the Roman Catholic Church crossed a border. It could no longer be presumed that obedience to national leaders would be the automatic response of faithful Catholics, a fact that helps explain widespread Catholic resistance to war in subsequent years and also that fact that the largest number of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War were Roman Catholics.

The challenge of Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes remains with us.

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Jim Forest
[email protected]

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