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Has Peace on Earth run dry in half a century?

HONG KONG (SE): There have been two papal encyclicals that have earned the title of watershed. The first was Rerum Novarum (Of Things New), by Pope Leo XIII, which broke ground in the labour market and challenged elitism in societies. It was touted as a platform of Catholic social action.

The second, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, is Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).

Coming from the hand of Pope John XXIII, Peace on Earth was published on 11 April 1963. It was an era of chilly skies. The Cold War was in its iciest period. The Berlin Wall was only two years old. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still a fresh memory.

Peace on Earth gained immediate worldwide attention. The United Nations held a three-day conference on the document and the New York Times published it in full.

Why the attention?

It was penned by Pope John, who had played a significant role in mediating during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The premier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) at the time, Nikita Khruschev, was reported to have commented, “In regard to what Pope John did for peace, his was humanistic assistance that will be recorded in history.”

It was also the time of the Second Vatican Council. It is believed that the papal encyclical served as the basis for another earth shaking document, the Decree on Religious Liberty.

It was a time characterised by a buildup in nuclear arsenals and ideological differences. The Cultural Revolution was dawning in China, new frontiers were being drawn, upheaval was brewing among young people round the world and old colonies of European powers were seeking independence.

Peace on Earth offered a plausible option to all people of good will, Catholic or otherwise.

Pope John called for disarmament and threw his weight behind the United Nations as a worldwide authority to negotiate conflict settlements. 

He encouraged economic cooperation among nations, a far sighted suggestion in a world which was still learning about interdependence. A new order was emerging in the old class-sensitive societies of Europe and Pope John pointed to the moral obligation of governments towards the less privileged in society. 

He also gave moral justification to civil disobedience, saying that no immoral law could be binding on the citizens of any nation and he championed the rights of the emerging political power of the working class.

In Peace on Earth, he championed the rights of women, the spread of democracy and strongly denied that justice and peace could ever be achieved through violence or armed conflict.

However, although the ice that characterised the Cold War has thawed, the USSR has collapsed.

In addition, the Berlin Wall is now a monument to the unjust division of brothers and sisters.

Nevertheless, little else has changed.

The Berlin Wall remains in the form of the Demilitarised Zone separating brothers and sisters on the Korean Peninsula, the United States of America is waging a war on terrorism of unsubstantiated validity, religious fundamentalism is on the rise and the self-interest of western nations has become more deeply entrenched.

It may be time for another Peace on Earth, as the people of good will could well be in need of a shot in the arm.

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