60 Years of Trying, 60 Years of Violence

For anyone paying attention, it is clear we are in an era of increased violence, specifically state violence.

Several months ago, I wrote that two of the major conflicts in the world — the war in Ukraine and the civil war in Ethiopia — are between groups that consider themselves Christian. Since then, there have been coups and civil unrest across Africa and war in the Caucasus. The horrific outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza, although not nearly as unexpected and unprovoked as touted, is nonetheless numbing in its raw violence and magnitude.

It is a tragic coincidence that some of the most destructive conflicts — Russia-Ukraine, Ethiopia, Israel-Palestine — are in places where CNEWA has been active for decades. What follows, therefore, is not academic, but personal.

As the word “unprecedented” is used with irritatingly unprecedented repetition, and reporters struggle for new, evermore dramatic adjectives, the voice of the prophet Jeremiah haunts me: “ ‘Peace, peace!’ they say, though there is no peace” (Jer 6:14, 8:11).

Having recently observed its 75th anniversary, the United Nations, whose charter’s preamble declares the organization “determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” seems increasingly incapable of achieving that goal. The horror of the two world wars, fresh in the mind of humanity, exercised a certain restraint in the international community that has diminished, as the horror of the two world wars has diminished as well.

Seeing rockets flying out of Gaza and Israel bombing Gaza is not new. It happens with sickening regularity. What is new this time is the ferocity and horrific efficiency of the violence.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is in its 56th year. During this period, Gaza — a strip of land the size of Las Vegas densely populated by 2.2 million inhabitants — has been occupied, its occupation lifted, and a brutal blockade imposed since.

Pope John XXIII published his encyclical, “Pacem in terris”(“Peace on Earth”), four years before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. On this 60th anniversary of the encyclical, there is armed conflict between Russians and Ukrainians, between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, among different factions in Ethiopia and in other parts of Africa, and once again between Israelis and Palestinians.

When it was published, “Pacem in Terris” was a revolutionary document. Although the Holy See was not at the time a member of the United Nations, the encyclical signaled the emergence of the Holy See as a member of the international community. Pope John XXIII died soon after the encyclical was published and was succeeded by Pope Paul VI, under whom the Holy See became a permanent observer to the U.N. in 1964.

Reading “Pacem in Terris” in 2023, several things stand out. There is considerable optimism in the encyclical, perhaps an optimism that in 2023 seems naive. The pope states: “Since all peoples have either attained political independence or are on the way to attaining it, soon no nation will rule over another and none will be subject to an alien power. … Thus all over the world men are either citizens of an independent state, or are shortly to become so” (42-43).

Given that the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, to say nothing of our present awareness of the situation of human rights and national sovereignty in 2023, the pope’s view of the world was extremely optimistic.

While this optimism may give the encyclical a certain quaint tone, what the pope has to say about the common good, the limits of power and the role of law — the present “rules-based system” — is extremely important and needs to be revisited.

The principle of “might makes right,” even when unarticulated, is rejected by the pope. While national self-interest often and understandably plays an important role in international relations, the pope stresses the centrality of the common good. Indeed, the common good has not played a major role in contemporary international narratives.

The encyclical recognizes that “it must not be imagined that authority has no bounds” (47). Rather, the “attainment of the common good” is “the sole reason for the existence of civil authorities” (54). Once again, it is the common good, not national interest, that Pope John XXIII underlines as the raison d’être of civil authorities/governments.

Thus, while in the contemporary situation of widespread and heightened violence, “Pacem in terris”may seem to be naively optimistic and far from having been successful in achieving the goal as stated in its title, the 60th anniversary might be an appropriate time to reconsider issues concerning the limitations of power, to recover the awareness that national power does not exist merely to maintain itself, and to reopen a serious discussion on peace being based primarily not on force or violence, but on the attainment of a true and universal good.

Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D., is special assistant to the president of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission.

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