4.3.3 Democracy in CST texts (ii): John XXIII, Pacem in Terris

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Unit 4 Contents

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Pope Pius XII’s successor was John XXIII, known by many as ‘Good Pope John’.  Although he was pope for only five years (1958-1963), he set in motion a profound renewal of the Catholic Church by calling the Second Vatican Council – to which we shall turn on the next screen. John published two social encyclicals during his short papacy, including Pacem in Terris.  It was this statement together with one of the documents issued by the Council, Dignitatis Humanae, which effected the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ (see 3.3.2).

The main task for this screen is to read some passages in Pacem in Terris that relate to participation and democracy.  You will be able to assess the extent to which this document develops Catholic teaching beyond what is found in Pius XII’s 1944 Christmas Message.

The first, very short, reading comes at the end of a section of the encyclical that sets out a whole range of human rights that people have and that clearly signals that ‘revolution’ (##11-26).  You are asked to read only two paragraphs here because the whole first part of Pacem in Terris (##1-45) is set as a reading in Module A, Unit 7 (which is on duties and rights; see 7.2.4).

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Reading (1p.)

John XIII, Pacem in Terris, ## 26-27, headed ‘Political rights’

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Pacem in Terris #26 is an important staging post in CST’s then growing emphasis on political participation.  Note that Pius XII’s 1944 Christmas Message is quoted (#15). What is most significant about #26, however, is that it affirms that people (all adults) have a right to take part in public affairs.  This means that governments must respect and ensure legal protection for people who actually do take part (as #27 implies).  In other words, people have a moral right to participate in political life which governments must make into a legal right (this distinction between moral and legal rights is discussed in Module A – see 7.1.2).

A right to participate could be compatible with more and less democratic constitutions – it does not directly entail commitment to full democracy, because participation can take various forms.  But recognition of such a right clearly does rule out forms of government in which there are no real avenues for popular involvement – such as absolute monarchy and military dictatorship.

The next reading from Pacem in Terris (PT) comes from Part 2 of the document, which is about the relations of individual people and the state.  Here, Pope John XXIII reaffirms traditional Christian teaching that political authority comes from God, and that it is a moral authority (#48). It is not, therefore, merely might or brute force, even though it can be abused and so become that.   You will recall that, when studying the Bible in Unit 2, we looked in some detail at the background to St Paul’s affirmation in Romans 13 that rulers’ authority comes from God (2.2.7).  Romans 13 is quoted here in n. 29.

It is near the end of this reading that there is the single direct reference to democracy in the 1960s CST documents.

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Reading (3pp)

John XIII, Pacem in Terris, ##46-54, headed ‘Necessity and divine origin of authority’

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Reflection

Evidently, Pope John XXIII thought it was necessary to point out, in #52, that the traditional Christian teaching that political authority comes from God can be “fully consonant” with a democratic constitution.

Why do you think he saw doing that as necessary?

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Given the way in which he puts that point, it in effect reaffirms the Church’s longstanding teaching that any of the main forms of government can be acceptable.  The reason why that statement about democracy must have been thought necessary is at least twofold.

First, there was the very long history of Catholic backing of monarchy and opposition to democracy (see 4.2.4).

Second, and more significantly here, the Pauline teaching that political authority comes from God might be assumed to be anti-democratic by those secular democrats who hold that political authority lies ultimately in the will of the people.  John XXIII’s point is that that view rests on a false dichotomy because, he implies, God has granted to people the right to decide together what form of government is best for them.  In other words, God-given authority can reside in the people as a whole because it is to the people that God has given it.  But God remains its ultimate source, not the will of the people.

However, PT doesn’t state this explicitly, and indeed the text doesn’t really go beyond asserting that people together may decide both the form of government and what it should do.  Why should Christians affirm that political authority lies with all the people?  John XXIII doesn’t give an answer to this, although #52 presumes one.

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Reflection

In the light of your study of this module so far, and of other knowledge of Christian faith you have, do you think there are good Christian theological reasons to affirm that political authority lies with all the people?

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We shall come back to this point later in Unit 4.

We now pass over the next few sections of PT (##55-66) because these relate to the role of government and most of this passage was set as a reading in Unit 3.

The next reading is on the ‘Structure and operation of public authority’ (##67-69) and ‘Citizens’ participation in public life’ (##73-74, 79)

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Reading (3pp)

John XIII, Pacem in Terris, ##67-79

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Here are a few points of exposition of this reading:

  • ##67-68 reiterate the traditional point that forms of government properly differ.  In determining what form is most appropriate, “great weight has to be given to… circumstances” (#68).
  • Nevertheless, there should always be a distinction of the legislative, judicial and executive ‘branches’, in other words, a ‘separation of powers’ – regardless of whether government is monarchical, aristocratic or democratic.  This is in order to “protect the citizens both in the enjoyment of their rights and in the fulfilment of their duties” (#68).  We looked at this issue briefly in Unit 3 (3.1.5; see under the heading ‘The rule of law’).  There it was emphasized that, for the sake of justice, the court system (the judiciary) needs to operate independently of other branches because it must not be distorted by special interests and corruption.

As John XXIII implies by insisting on this, there can and should be a full and proper distinction of these three branches of government whether or not there is democracy.

  • In ##73-74 and #79, PT stresses the importance of political participation.  The encyclical claims that, in that post-WW2 period, people were becoming more conscious of their dignity, and that human dignity itself means that people should have opportunities to participate in public life.

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Reflection

The idea that people in many countries were becoming more aware of their own dignity – of their immeasurable worth simply as human persons – in the decades after the Second World War was expressed a number of times in the CST statements of that period.

From your own historical knowledge, do you have a sense of why that might be true?

Would you say that that has continued – i.e. that in recent decades people have in general gone on becoming more aware of their own worth as persons, and so their dignity?

To the extent that people are aware of their own human dignity, does this prompt them to be more involved in political deliberation about that will affect them?

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  • In #78, Pope John XXIII comments directly on the issue I referred to above of whether, as some secular democrats hold, political authority lies ultimately in the people, and therefore not in God.  Given that the Church teaches that political authority comes from God, it is entirely unsurprising that he says that is “impossible to accept the theory… [that] the original and single source of civic rights and duties… and of a government’s right to command, is the mere will of human beings, individually or collectively”.  In other words, Catholic support for democracy is not based on a secularist assertion of the ‘will of the people’.

However, as I pointed out earlier, PT says nothing about why the Church might affirm that, under God, political authority lies with all the people.  Pope XXIII left unaddressed the big question of whether and how Christian theology can give good reasons for that.  We return to this below (4.4.2).

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Reflection 

To what extent does Pacem in Terris goes beyond what Pius XII’s 1944 Christmas Message said on democracy? 

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To conclude, I suggest that we may say that PT conveys, without stating explicitly, a participatory argument for democratic procedures. Participation in public life is a good for human beings – and widespread participation is made possible by democracy.

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End of 4.3.3

Go to 4.3.4 Democracy in CST texts (iii): Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes 

Module B outline

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