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Re-Reading Pacem in Terris with Different Eyes

© Gregor Buss. English translation: We admonish the world – use the peace, preserve the freedom.

The impossible fact

I live in the city of Paderborn in the center of Germany. On my way to work almost every morning I pass a monument that I have not paid attention to for a long time. A month ago, things suddenly changed. After Putin’s army attacked Ukraine on February 24 2022, the slogan on the monument became unexpectedly topical: “We admonish the world – use the peace, preserve the freedom.” Still under the shock of the first pictures from Ukraine, I understood this appeal for peace, formulated by former German prisoners of war and returnees, for the first time. Peace is not guaranteed, not even in Europe, it must be permanently worked for and defended.

In the days that followed, I wondered why I was so naive as to believe that Europe was blessed with perpetual peace. One answer is surely: denial of reality. It is probably part of human nature that we do not always want to acknowledge reality – especially its darker sides. The German poet Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) summed this up in his poem The impossible fact: “What must not be, cannot be” (German: “Was nicht sein darf, das kann nicht sein”). A war in Europe must not be, therefore it will not be – that was my attitude until February 24. But the world is more than “will and representation” (A. Schopenhauer), it does not spare us with “reality shocks” (S. Lobo). Corona is such a reality shock, as is the impending climate collapse – and so is Putin’s war. All these catastrophes were in the offing, they didn’t come out of nowhere, but people didn’t want to acknowledge them. The desire for a happy ending is simply too strong. It is therefore all the more fitting that the dream factory Hollywood, of all places, has relentlessly demonstrated the dangers of such a denial of reality with the apocalyptic black comedy film “Don’t look up” (2021).

So what is to be done? Perhaps a first step is to rethink old habits and to see the familiar environment with different eyes. Since February 24, I have been seeing my hometown with different eyes, and I also read some texts with different eyes. Let me illustrate this with the example of a text that is very familiar to most readers of this forum: Pacem in terris (1963) by Pope John XXIII.

With different eyes

In the following, I will not comment on the entire encyclical, but only recall four short passages in which ethical questions are raised that have taken on a new explosiveness in recent weeks. The intention is only to identify these ethical problem areas, not to provide immediate answers to these complex questions. The passages come mainly from the third part of the encyclical, which deals with intergovernmental relations. I will admit that up to now I have considered the question of human rights – i.e. the first two parts – as the heart of the encyclical and rather neglected the dimension of peace ethics. This truncated view has changed in view of the current world situation. It is probably precisely in the interweaving of human rights and peace ethics – as Linda Hogan rightly points out – that the continuing importance of the encyclical is based.

1) Disarmament or rearmament? “Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned.” (PT 112) This appeal for disarmament by John XXIII seems to have fallen out of time. In Germany and in many other countries, the public discussion is currently determined by how quickly the country must be rearmed and what weapons can be supplied to the Ukrainian military. The German Bishops’ Conference has also endorsed arms deliveries to Ukraine in a recent statement. 60 years after Pacem in terris, a new arms race is brewing.

2) Nuclear ban or deterrence? “Nuclear weapons must be banned.“ (PT 112) Even the use of nuclear weapons is among the macabre threatening gestures in the Ukraine war. A world free of nuclear weapons, as dreamt of by Pope John XXIII, seems further out of reach than ever. Instead, the nuclear shield is seen as Europe’s life insurance; nuclear deterrence again seems to be a natural part of peacekeeping.

3) Just war or just peace? “Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.” (PT 127) The Pope’s call to banish war as a means of politics is currently finding a hard hearing. War has returned to everyday political life. Even Catholic ethicists, as Ramón Luzárraga points out in this forum, “may divide on how best to support Ukraine either through the use of supporting nonviolent direct action or fighting just war”.

4) Freedom or foreign rule? “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.” (PT 47) This optimistic view of the Pope has suffered a severe setback in recent weeks. The Ukrainians‘ right to self-determination was not respected by the Russian president; instead of the strength of the law, the law of the strongest was enforced. Power-political realities that were thought to have been overcome long ago resurfaced – further evidence that the European peace order is not as stable as it seemed just a few weeks ago.

Building bridges

Finally, let’s return to the Paderborn monument from which this short text started. What I noticed only in the last few weeks was that it is also inscribed from the back. Again, I had not seen part of the reality until now. As a basis for peace, the dialogue with all people of good will, as it says in Pacem in terris, is recommended there: “Build bridges to each other!” This call must be heeded especially among Christians, because, as Ramón Luzárraga wrote in this forum a month ago, “our faith carries the resources for overcoming traditional enmities and developing new partnerships, and even new friendships”.

© Gregor Buss. English translation: Build bridges to each other!


Hogan, L. (2014). Human rights and the ethics of peace: The contribution of „Pacem in terris“. Jahrbuch für Christliche Sozialwissenschaften, 55, 43–57.

Justenhoven, H.-G. & O’Connell, M. E. (ed.). (2016). Peace through law: Reflections on Pacem in Terris from philosophy, law, theology, and political science. Nomos.

Lobo, S. (2019). Realitätsschock: Zehn Lehren aus der Gegenwart. Kiepenheuer&Witsch.