Pope John XXIII Issues and Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII redefined the Roman Catholic perspective on justice and peace and assumed a position of moral leadership in the world.

Summary of Event

An encyclical is a letter written by the pope and intended for dissemination to the entire Roman Catholic Church. Encyclicals deal with matters of pastoral concern and may address doctrine or morals, including social problems. The first of the social encyclicals was Rerum Novarum, Rerum Novarum (papal encyclical) issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. This document upheld the rights of labor, as well as the right to property. Quadragesimo Anno, Quadragesimo Anno (papal encyclical) issued by Pope Pius XI, appeared on the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Mater et Magistra appeared on the seventieth anniversary, in 1961, with Pacem in Terris appearing shortly thereafter, in 1963. Although they were not the first social encyclicals of the Roman Catholic church, Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris marked a turning point in Catholic social philosophy, as well as the emergence of that philosophy into a position of global status. Mater et Magistra (papal encyclical) Pacem in Terris (papal encyclical) Papacy, Roman Catholic;encyclicals Social justice Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals Christianity;Catholic doctrines [kw]Pope John XXIII Issues Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris (May 15, 1961, and Apr. 11, 1963) [kw]John XXIII Issues Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, Pope (May 15, 1961, and Apr. 11, 1963) [kw]Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII Issues (May 15, 1961, and Apr. 11, 1963) [kw]Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII Issues Mater et Magistra and (May 15, 1961, and Apr. 11, 1963) Mater et Magistra (papal encyclical) Pacem in Terris (papal encyclical) Papacy, Roman Catholic;encyclicals Social justice Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals Christianity;Catholic doctrines [g]Europe;May 15, 1961, and Apr. 11, 1963: Pope John XXIII Issues Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris[06930] [g]Italy;May 15, 1961, and Apr. 11, 1963: Pope John XXIII Issues Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris[06930] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;May 15, 1961, and Apr. 11, 1963: Pope John XXIII Issues Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris[06930] [c]Social issues and reform;May 15, 1961, and Apr. 11, 1963: Pope John XXIII Issues Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris[06930] John XXIII Leo XIII Pius XI

That this occurred can no doubt be attributed to Pope John XXIII, who in only five short years as pope changed the entire perspective of the Roman Catholic Church. As many cardinals shook their heads, wondering how they would ever be able to undo the “mistakes” of John XXIII’s pontificate, he proceeded with assurance to point the church in new directions and to make friends in places where the Roman Catholic Church had only had enemies. While many people, Christian and non-Christian, loved this charismatic and congenial pontiff who showed such great concern for common people, very few, perhaps none, understood the depth of his vision while he was alive. This son of landless peasants who had traveled about the world in the diplomatic corps of the Holy See had a vision of the Catholic Church as being in the service of all humanity. It was this vision that came to fruition in his two great social encyclicals, Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris.

Undergirding both encyclicals is a new understanding of human rights Human rights;papal pronouncements and human dignity. In these two documents, the claim is advanced that individual human beings should be the foundation, the end, and the subject of all social institutions. Human beings are endowed by nature with certain rights and responsibilities that are universal, inviolable, and inalienable. Since many ideologies have made use of the concept of human rights, it may not be obvious initially how innovative this social philosophy is. What is different about the social philosophy espoused in Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris is perhaps best explained through some examples from the encyclicals.

The issues addressed in Mater et Magistra are the results of the process of socialization, referring to the progressive increase in social relations, both within nations and internationally. This process has been driven by scientific and technical progress, the globalization of the media, and the internationalization of economics. According to the encyclical, socialization is neither the bane of the world, as individualistic capitalists claim, nor a boon, as it is perceived by socialists and Marxists, because it is not the product of natural forces working in a deterministic way. It does not shape human beings, for good or ill, turning them either into automatons, as in the negative view, or demigods, as in the positive.

The process, rather, is seen by the pope as entailing the creation of free and intelligent human beings, whose responsibility it is to draw from it the advantages that it contains while removing or restraining its negative aspects. The amount of creativity, responsibility, and dignity ascribed to persons in this social philosophy is breathtaking by comparison with that of its competitors. Human beings are not the product of the play of social forces but rather their creators and determiners.

Insofar as socialization is a result of the human tendency to band together to attain a good that cannot be attained independently, John XXIII welcomed it. Farmers joining to lobby for fair prices or laborers establishing a voice for themselves through the International Labor Organization(ILO) are positive aspects of socialization. In certain cases, John XXIII was even willing to welcome government intervention. Since, as Rerum Novarum had already “established,” work is not only a commodity but also an expression of the human person, its remuneration ought not to be left to the mechanical play of market forces. Public authorities, then, should intervene when necessary for the interests of justice and the common good.

In other words, John XXIII did not wish to see the state stand by impotently in the face of exploitation, unemployment, or poverty. On the other hand, one of the negative results of socialization is the tendency for national governments to assume an ever-increasing role for themselves. Mater et Magistra encourages control of this negative aspect by application of the “principle of subsidiarity,” which was formulated by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno. This principle states that larger and higher organizations should not take upon themselves functions that can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies.

Mater et Magistra does not consider wealth to be an exclusively economic consideration. The encyclical describes the wealth of a nation as lying in its people and their full development as human persons rather than merely in an accumulation of material goods. The wealth of a nation requires not only increases in productivity but also, and more important, the redistribution of goods in accordance with justice. The encyclical does not, however, downplay the importance of economic development, acknowledging that the just distribution of an amount of material goods insufficient to sustain life with human dignity amounts to no more than a sharing of poverty. Economic development and social progress must go hand in hand.

Mater et Magistra goes on to state that justice demands even more than the redistribution of wealth. Justice demands the active participation of employees in decisions that regulate their activity. If the structures of an economic system systematically blunt individual responsibility or constitute an impediment to personal initiative, the system is unjust. This social philosophy, contending that human rights must include the right to exercise all endowments, including the power of intelligence, goes far beyond the more conventional listings either of basic necessities, such as food and shelter, or of basic liberties, such as freedom of speech and the right to vote.

The dignity of the human person is also the guiding thread in Pacem in Terris. This encyclical states that the dignity of the human person requires that people should enjoy the right to act freely and responsibly. This implies that each person should act on his or her own decisions, from a consciousness of obligation, without being moved by external force or by pressure. The encyclical states that any society established on relations of force is to be regarded as inhuman, because the personality of its members is being repressed or restricted when in fact it ought to be developed and perfected.

One of the areas of concern in Pacem in Terris is disarmament. The encyclical states that in order for disarmament to occur, thinking about the way to establish and maintain peace must change. Peace among nations depends not upon equality of arms but upon mutual trust. John XXIII believed that relations between nations, as between individuals, should be regulated by the light of reason rather than by the force of arms. He defined reason as the rule of truth, justice, and active and sincere cooperation.

Many people would say that these are unattainable ideals. Such people contend that if force and the fear that accompanies it are eliminated from the political arena, what will be established is not trust but trouble. Many would ask whether refusal to defend oneself does not give others the “right” to take advantage of a person. Such would be the likely criticisms by liberal democracies, in which human rights are interpreted along the lines of individual freedoms and not along the lines of mutual responsibilities.

In contrast to liberal democracies, the Catholic human rights tradition sets human rights into a moral context that includes a linkage of rights with duties. In Pacem in Terris, John XXIII illustrated this linkage with the following examples: Every person has a right to life, but each also has the duty to preserve it; every person has a right to a decent standard of living, but each also has the duty of living life in a becoming manner; every person has a right to seek the truth freely, but each also has the duty to pursue it with complete commitment.

The basis for this correlation of rights and duties is a recognition that there are goods that are essential to human life and dignity. Consequently, individuals are not in a condition of pure liberty and discretion with regard to these goods; they remain under moral obligation. The practice of claiming and exercising rights is not merely an instrument for protecting and advancing self-interest. In saying that those rights that are essential to human dignity are not optional, either for oneself or in the case of others, the Catholic understanding of human rights steers between the extremes of self-sacrifice and self-interest, although it accepts self-sacrifice as a great and fundamentally Christian virtue.


Some believe that it is a remarkable development that human rights should have emerged as such a central concern for contemporary Roman Catholicism, since the Catholic Church was a vigorous opponent of both the democratic and socialist revolutions that were the chief proponents of civil and social rights. The change in attitude toward human rights came about when the Church became more aware of itself as a transnational, transcultural community in a pluralistic world. Some connect this change in awareness with the Second Vatican Council. It is even more remarkable, then, that these two encyclicals should express this view so strongly, as Mater et Magistra predated the council and Pacem in Terris closely followed it.

In one sense, the Roman Catholic Church was only following a pattern set by other transnational organizations. The United Nations, the International Commission of Jurists, and Amnesty International all employed a doctrine of human rights as the normative basis for their activities. Indeed, human rights seem a natural basis for social justice in any situation that is pluralistic in terms of cultures and political ideologies.

On the other hand, the Roman Catholic understanding of human rights as it is expressed in these two encyclicals is arguably unique, although it certainly mirrors earlier isolated expressions of doctrine that connect to the Catholic belief in the sacred nature of all life, especially human life. In its uniqueness in considering both the natural and spiritual nature of human beings, it may have something to contribute to the political leaders of the world and to other religious organizations.

The Roman Catholic understanding of human rights differs from that of classical Anglo-American liberalism in its mistrust of individualism and its emphasis on community. The Catholic approach also places more moral constraints upon the exercise of freedom in society. The Roman Catholic approach differs from that of authoritarian political leaders in its distrust of force and its emphasis on free decisions of conscience. It differs from capitalist economic systems in its distrust of the free play of the market as a guarantor of human rights and in its belief that human beings, not the impersonal market, are responsible for what happens in society. It differs from Marxist economic systems in its defense of private property and freedom of choice in market situations, provided that freedom is exercised with due regard for the common good. Finally, it differs from Protestant approaches in its reliance on philosophical rather than theological or biblical bases for dealing with political and social issues.

Neither Mater et Magistra nor Pacem in Terris has been adopted as a blueprint for action by any nation. At least part of the reason for this neglect in practical terms is that nations are divided along lines of liberal democracies and totalitarian regimes or capitalist economies and socialist economies, divisions that the encyclicals seek to overcome. While a transnational organization such as the Catholic Church can issue theoretical statements drawing on the best of opposing political ideologies, it is more difficult for national bodies identified with one side or the other of those opposing ideologies to adopt such statements and put them into practice.

The impact of these encyclicals upon the Roman Catholic community is much more evident. The Catholic peace movement of the Vietnam years and beyond, as well as the establishment and growth of Pax Christi USA, owes much to Pacem in Terris. Catholic social action, which substantially predated the Vatican Council, continued to be nourished by the principles set forth in Mater et Magistra. Mater et Magistra (papal encyclical) Pacem in Terris (papal encyclical) Papacy, Roman Catholic;encyclicals Social justice Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals Christianity;Catholic doctrines

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cronin, John F. “Mater et Magistra: Catholic Social Teaching Updated.” Social Order 11 (September, 1961): 289-295. A short summary of the encyclical’s main themes, spiced with commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzgerald, Mark J., ed. Proceedings of the Symposium on “Mater et Magistra” (Christianity and Social Progress) by Pope John XXIII. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1962. The proceedings of a conference on Mater et Magistra held at the University of Notre Dame on May 5, 1962. Explanations of various parts of the encyclical, with explorations of their application to the American context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Symposium on “Pacem in Terris” by Pope John XXIII. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965. The proceedings of a conference on Pacem in Terris, held at the University of Notre Dame on May 8, 1965. Explanation and discussion of the encyclical by Notre Dame faculty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hehir, J. Bryan. “Human Rights and the National Intererst: According to Catholic Social Theory, Human Rights Must Be Factored into All Foreign Policy Equations.” Worldwide 25 (May, 1982): 18-21. This article shows how the philosophical principles outlined in Pacem in Terris can be translated into public policy decisions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Himes, Kenneth R., ed. Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005. Includes commentaries on both Pacem in Terris and Mater et Magistra. Places the encyclicals in the general context of Roman Catholic social and political thought. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hollenbach, David. “Global Human Rights: An Interpretation of the Contemporary Catholic Understanding.” Perkins Journal 39 (October, 1986): 1-10. Describes the contemporary understanding of human rights in the Catholic church and argues that the impetus for the rapid development of the church’s position on global human rights came from the Second Vatican Council. This fundamental shift in the church’s understanding of its social and institutional place in a pluralistic world came about under the leadership of Pope John XXIII.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langan, John. “Human Rights in Roman Catholicism.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 19 (Summer, 1982): 25-39. A very fine analysis of Pacem in Terris.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, Jeremiah. Principles of Peace: A Commentary on John XXIII’s “Pacem in Terris.” Oxford, England: Catholic Social Guild, 1964. An excellent commentary on Pacem in Terris, thorough and erudite, requiring no specialized knowledge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Niebuhr, R., and J. C. Bennett. “Pacem in Terris: Two Views.” Christianity and Crisis 23 (May 13, 1963): 81-83. Two well-known Protestant scholars discuss Pacem in Terris. Bennett gives a far more positive appraisal of the encyclical than does Niebuhr.

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