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The Political Vision of Saint John XXIII – Randall S. Rosenberg

On April 27, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II will be canonized together at a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. This week and next, we will look at the legacies of these two popes for political theology.

How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about?” asks William T. Cavanaugh.[1] “He must be convinced,” he continues, “of the reality of borders, and imagine himself deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community that stops abruptly at those borders.” Politics in the deepest sense of the term does not revolve around party allegiance, but rather around the questions posed by Aristotle centuries ago: How ought we to order our lives together? What conditions might ensure the common good? As the example of the soldier suggests, politics is a practice of the imagination. The nation-state to which the boy belongs is in fact a historically contingent community. Our globe has not always been divided according to nation-states. I am not minimizing the historical importance of the nation-state, nor am I denigrating legitimate forms of patriotism; rather, the point is to remind us that countries with borders are types of “imagined communities” around which we order our lives, participate in commerce, fight wars, and so on.[2]

If Pope John XXIII’s ecumenical vision helped to expand the Catholic imaginary to include a friendly and substantive engagement with the religious other, his political vision – his contribution to Catholic social thought – urged us to imagine human unity on a global scale. As Stephen Schloesser importantly notes about the Vatican II era: “it was a council of the mid-20th century, the bloodiest of all centuries.”[3] Angelo Roncalli emerged as pope when the world was dealing with the “consequences of the Jewish Holocaust, of a global war that claimed between 50 and 60 million lives, of the invention of the atomic bomb, and of the possibility of human annihilation, of the Cold War and the Soviet Totalitarian empire, of decolonization and the end of Western hegemony.”[4]

Let me suggest that Pope John wrote his key contributions to Catholic social teaching – Mater et magistra, and especially Pacem in terris – within the horizon of both dangerous memories (to employ Metz’s term) and anticipations of danger. In terms of dangerous memories, he served as a military chaplain during World War I and encountered severe suffering: “It often happened – permit me this personal memory – that I had to fall on my knees and cry like a child, alone in my room, unable to contain the emotion that I felt at the simple and holy deaths of so many poor sons of our people…”[5] One dangerous memory was particularly influential on his imagination as he wrote the encyclical Pacem in terris: “I shall never forget the screaming of an Austrian, whose chest…had been torn apart by bayonet thrusts, and who was brought into the hospital at Caporetto, where I was the orderly. The picture imprinted itself still more deeply in me when I worked on my encyclical Pacem in terris.”[6]

Dangerous memories also arose from Roncalli’s close proximity to the events of World War II. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he wrote, “The world is poisoned with an unhealthy nationalism, based on race and blood in contradiction of the Gospel. Especially on this theme which is so vital: ‘…free me from the races, God.’” During the Nazi era, Roncalli participated in several secret missions to save Jews. Acknowledging that any assessment of his work in this regard bears a certain complexity, it is worth noting that Franz von Papen, the Third Reich’s diplomat in Turkey, testified under oath in Pope John’s beatification process that Roncalli had helped to save 24,000 Jews.[7] As apostolic nuncio in postwar France – a country with “open wounds” – Roncalli devoted many works of mercy to the suffering.

If politics often nurtures disunity, war, sedimented borders, unhealthy nationalism, and ethnic and racial divisions, John XXIII deeply challenged this way of thinking. This was exemplified in the way he addressed his final love letter to the world. Whereas in Mater et magistra and all previous modern Catholic social encyclicals, popes addressed the Catholic Church, Pacem in terris addresses, in the spirit of friendship with the modern world, all people of “good will.” He had an inclination to emphasize what unites us rather than what divides us.

In terms of Pope John’s anticipations of danger, he worried deeply that the world was on the brink of disastrous nuclear war. The inspiration for this document can be traced to October 25, 1962, the day on which Pope John wrote his appeal for negotiations during the Cuban missile crisis. “That grave moment,” comment his biographers, “had further convinced the pope of the need for a document to present completely and systematically the magisterial teachings on peace in light of changing cultural conditions and the new framework of international politics.” The situation required urgency. John recognized that a possible use of nuclear weapons in a full-scale war would constitute “a colossal, perhaps final, tragedy.”[8]On the 40th anniversary of Pacem in terris, John Paul II affirmed the permanent importance of John XXIII’s global political vision:

With his confidence in the goodness he believed could be found in every human person, Pope John XXIII called the entire world to a nobler vision of public life and public authority, even as he boldly challenged the world to think beyond its present state of disorder to new forms of international order commensurate with human dignity.[9]

As a friend of the modern world, Pope John accepted “generously and ungrudgingly” the many “elements of historical progress,”[10] including the wider participation of women in public life (#41), the ongoing fight against racial discrimination (#44), and the progressive improvement in the economic and social condition of workers (#40). But true friends do not simply embrace; friendship in the deepest sense of the term calls for the blotting out of the biases and blind spots that hinder full human flourishing. This kind of friendship was expressed in Pope John’s dark and presumably influential indictment of the modern world in Pacem in terris, especially evident in his call for disarmament. In the wake of human technological “progress” on weapons, he describes people in the grip of “constant fear” (#111). Aggiornamento after all is not, in the words of Bernard Lonergan, just a “realm of sweetness and light,” but also a justified disenchantment with the modern world in light of the “sustained blindness of the twentieth century.”

Pope John’s appropriation and presentation of human rights was an “updating” moment in Catholic social teaching’s engagement with the modern world. And he widened the Catholic imaginary to envision a globalized world community and challenged us to work concretely for a universal common good. A few days before his death, Pope John confided to his secretary that anyone who had spent “twenty years in the East and eight in France and by doing so could compare different cultures with one another” would know “that the moment has come to recognize the signs of the time, to seize the possibilities they offer and to look far ahead.”[11] And fifty years later, Pope Francis acknowledged that “his prophetic intuition of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council and his offering of his life for its success stand as milestones in the history of the church in the 20th century and as a bright beacon for the journey that lies ahead.”[12]

Randall S. Rosenberg, Ph.D. teaches systematic theology at Saint Louis University. Significant portions of this post are taken from his newly released book The Vision of Saint John XXIII (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014), Chapter 5. Used with permission.


Benigni, Mario and Goffredo Zanchi. John XXIII: The Official Biography. Boston: Pauline, 2001.

Cavanaugh, William T. Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism. London: T&T Clark, 2002.

Feldman, Christian. Pope John XXIII: A Spiritual Biography, trans. Peter Heinegg. New York: Crossroad, 2000.

Francis. “Speech on the 50th Anniversary of Death of Pope John XXIII.” 2013.

Hebblethwaite, Peter. John XXIII: Pope of the Century. New York: Continuum, 2000.

John XXIII. Essential Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008.

——–. Pacem in terris. 1963.

John Paul II. “2003 World Day of Peace Message.” 2003.

Murray, John Courtney. “Things Old and New in Pacem in Terris.” America (April 27, 1963): 612-14.

Schloesser, Stephen. “Against Forgetting: Memory, History, Vatican II.” Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?, ed. David G. Schultenover, 92-152. New York: Continuum, 2007.

[1] William T. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 1.

[2]Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, 1.

[3] Stephen Schloesser, “Against Forgetting: Memory, History, Vatican II,” Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?, ed. David G. Schultenover (New York: Continuum, 2007), 95.

[4] Schloesser, “Against Forgetting: Memory, History, Vatican II,” 96.

[5] Cited in Peter Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Century (New York: Continuum, 2000), 40.

[6] Cited in Christian Feldman, Pope John XXIII: A Spiritual Biography, trans. Peter Heinegg (New York: Crossroad, 2000), 38.

[7] See Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Century, 82ff.

[8] Mario Benigni and Goffredo Zanchi, John XXIII: The Official Biography (Boston: Pauline, 2001), 420.

[9] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/messages/peace/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_20021217_xxxvi-world-day-for-peace_en.html

[10] John Courtney Murray, “Things Old and New in ‘Pacem Terris,'” America (April 27, 1963): 612.

[11] John XXIII, Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 27.

[12] Pope Francis, “Speech on 50th Anniversary of Death of Pope John XXIII,” Origins 43.7 (June 20, 2013), 102.

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