Not strength, but trust

Publish date 12-08-2023

by Renato Bonomo

When Pacem in terris was published on April 11, 1963, Pope John XXIII wanted to offer a glimpse of hope to the world that seemed to be falling into a spiral of growing conflict. The critical episodes had been numerous and serious, the most significant being the construction of the Berlin wall (1961) and the Cuban missile crisis (1962) which saw a frontal confrontation between Kennedy's USA and Khrushchev's USSR. On that occasion, the Americans established a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent the Soviets from equipping the launch pads built in Cuba with missiles. After a few days in October of very high tension, the Soviets gave up. It was precisely the fear of a nuclear apocalypse that prompted the pope to speed up the drafting of an encyclical letter dedicated to peace.

Although belonging to the trend of the social doctrine of the Church inaugurated by Leo XIII with the Rerum Novarum of 1891, the Pacem in Terris breaks out of the typical schemes of a certain rigid ecclesiastical doctrinal language to embrace a new communicative style, capable of going beyond the ideological fences that divided the world in those years and - above all - of offering an unprecedented openness to the modern world. For some scholars, the encyclical is the first manifesto of the Church's entry into the modern world which, without debasing or denying tradition, rather enhancing it and making it available to peoples, wishes to listen and dialogue with humanity. With the awareness that faith is always placing oneself with others and not against them: "All men of good will have an immense task: the task of recomposing the relationships of coexistence in truth, justice, love, freedom : […]. A most noble task which is that of bringing about true peace in the order established by God [87]".

Among the many themes present in the encyclical letter (the rights and duties of the person, the importance of responsibility, the common good, the common belonging to the human family of all peoples, the relationships within political communities and between political communities), the issue of disarmament should be underlined. «It is also painful to note how in the most economically developed political communities gigantic armaments have been created and continue to be created; how a very high percentage of spiritual energies and economic resources are absorbed for this purpose; the citizens of those political communities themselves are subjected to considerable sacrifices; while other political communities are consequently deprived of collaborations indispensable to their economic development and their social progress [59]». John XXIII recalls how peace cannot be limited to being "founded on the balance of forces" because it would be the cause of a fatal arms race, above all due to the presence of nuclear weapons. Certainly the deterrence of the possession of atomic weapons could stop a conflict in the bud, but how can we exclude unpredictable facts or not take into consideration the nightmare and the threat that all peoples should face? “Therefore justice, wisdom and humanity demand that the arms race be stopped, that already existing armaments be reduced simultaneously and reciprocally; ban nuclear weapons; and we finally arrive at disarmament supplemented by effective controls [60]".

But the pope reminds us - with extraordinary prophetic clarity - true peace passes from the conversion of one's heart which renounces using every reality as a weapon: "However, it must be recognized that stopping armaments for war purposes, their effective reduction and, even more so, their elimination are impossible or almost impossible, if at the same time a complete disarmament were not carried out; that is, if the spirits are not disassembled, sincerely striving to dissolve, in them, the psychosis of war: which implies, in turn, that the criterion of peace based on the balance of armaments is replaced by the principle that the true peace can only be built in mutual trust. We believe that this is an objective that can be achieved [61]». Not strength, but trust. Even in this time of war that has reappeared in Europe, we must not forget that the prospect of complete disarmament must remain the fundamental objective towards which to strive.

Renato Bonomo
NP May 2023

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