All the Pope talk and controversy sent me back to see if I still had a handle on Vatican II and the papacy of Pope John XXIII. I remembered his encyclical "Pacem in Terris" and re-read it for the first time in many years. It was an emotional experience. The language is so pure, and the document is amazing. For as long and strange as this trip has been, I will always be grateful that I came of age in those brief years when Pope John and JFK were there to help form my principles and ideals.
I posted a version of this on Daily Kos, the big southpaw political blog, and discovered in the responses that I wasn't alone in this. One person referred to Pope John simply as "the Sunshine."
Pope John XXIII is associated in many American minds with JFK. John's papacy and Kennedy's presidency occurred at almost exactly the same time. They died within a few months of each other in 1963.
This period also coincides with my years at a Catholic high school, with a faculty comprised almost entirely of nuns and priests. Both Johns were of considerable and sometimes daily interest.
Pope John was a surprise choice when Pope Pius XII died in 1958. He was considered a compromise and caretaker pope, and like the new pope, his age seemed to guarantee a short and therefore inconsequential papacy.
He was Angelo Roncalli, the son of a sharecropper in a small Italian village. In World War I he was drafted into the Italian army and served as a medic and chaplan. At the start of World War II he was the Apostolic (Vatican) Delegate to Turkey and Greece, and saved thousands of Jewish refugees throughout Europe by working with the Jewish underground. He is considered by some Holocaust groups to be a Righteous Gentile.
In 1944 he was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Paris, and Charles DeGaulle became so fond of him that when Roncalli was named a cardinal in 1953, President DeGaulle claimed an ancient right of French rulers to ceremonially bestow the red hat of the Cardinal himself.
When he became Pope in 1959, he was immediately popular as the people's pope. With his open smile and peasant face, he was an obvious contrast to the formal and aristocratic Pius XII. Pope John Paul II was famous as a world traveler, so it's strange to note that until Pope John XXIII, no pope since 1870 had left Vatican City on official business. John's first foray outside the Vatican was to visit prisoners. He also was the first Pope to reach out to other religions, first by meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1960, the first such meeting in 400 years.
In the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be nominated by a major party since 1928, when the Democrats nominated Al Smith. (Though Smith lost, some credit his running with moving Italians and other immigrant Catholics to the Democratic party, a process solidified by FDR and the New Deal.) Some of the same charges as helped defeat Smith were raised against Kennedy: that a Catholic would be bound to take orders from the Pope.
Protestant fundamentalists were particularly virulent in their opposition, fearing the collapse of the separation of church and state., and perhaps something else... The Reverend Harvey Springer, "cowboy evangelist of the Rockies," proclaimed: "Let the Romanists move out of America! Did you see the coronation of Big John? [meaning Pope John.] Let's hope we never see the coronation of Little John...How many Catholics came over on the Mayflower? Not one...The Constitution is a Protestant Constitution."
Kennedy confronted the issue by affirming that he would honor his oath as President first, and maintain the separation of church and state. In Rome, Pope John was trying to learn English. When an American bishop told him that Kennedy had a good chance of being elected, John joked with him: "Do not expect me to run a country with a language as difficult as yours."
JFK and John XXIII never met, although as First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy had a papal audience in Rome. The Wikipedia bio of John preserves the story that the Pope had nervously rehearsed the proper greeting, "Madame, Mrs. Kennedy." But when he saw her he rushed over and cried, "Jackie!"
John XXIII shocked even the inner circle in the Vatican by calling for the Second Vatican Council just a few months after he became Pope. (The first council had been some 90 years before, was cut short by war and had little effect.) There were several years of preparation, and four sessions from 1962 to 1965. Pope John was alive for only one of the sessions. Most of the Council was actually run by his successor, Pope Paul VI.
Most of the Council's work, such as changes in the liturgy that allowed modern languages to be substituted for Latin, affected only Catholics. But the larger ramification was in opening dialogues with those outside the church. It was called an Ecumenical Council, and this was the word we heard the most---ecumenical, which means the whole church, and was interpreted to mean the possible unification of all Christians to some degree, and perhaps beyond that.
Observers from other religions were made part of Vatican II. Pope John's intention was preserved in this quote: "I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in."
As evidenced in the excerpts below from his encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John based many of his thoughts on natural law, in the manner of Thomas Jefferson, for instance. This was to both include other traditions, and to place Catholicism within a larger context.
Why was the Council so controversial? Conservatives within the church didn't like change. I remember that some of my teachers were enthusiastic, but others kept quiet about the Council. One of my English teachers had high hopes that the Council would end the "Index of Forbidden Books," or at least take off some recognized classics that Catholics were reading away. This was the modernization trend, and together with the rest of the 1960s, it did cause a lot of wrenching change, and sometimes chaos.
For instance, a lot of rules governing religious orders were "liberalized." Just a few years after my graduation, two younger siblings of a classmate told me how much the school had changed. Some of the nuns who had taught me had left their orders altogether (my French teacher, who used to pretend to be scolding me when she read aloud my rather free translations---I just made up funny stories using words reminicent of the French words---showed up at a homecoming game a few years later with flaming red hair.) Others were out of their habits, and living in apartments (my old English teacher got in a tiff with her order over her car allowance). And just as some had feared, discipline had broken down at our old high school. Students were essentially laughing at their teachers, and going outside to get high. So if you're wondering why conservatives get apoplectic over the 60s, this may be a clue.
Personally I'm not sure the folk Mass was an improvement over the Latin I had to learn as an altar boy. But being able to legitimately use local language and music was important to places that had them as vital parts of their cultures, like Africa.
But to me the greatest legacy of Pope John was his final encyclical, "Pacem in Terris" (Peace on Earth). It is to me the greatest liberal document since the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Even today it reads like a Bill of Rights for the world.
I recommend reading the whole thing:
But here are some excerpts to give you the flavor, and whet your appetite. (I should point out that although this encyclical doesn't mention abortion, it does reserve the right of the Church to instruct its members on moral issues, thus offering some justification for the current Pope's letter as Prefect of the Congregation to American bishops that essentially read John Kerry out of the Church for his position on choice. But it seems unlikely to me that Pope John would have sanctioned such an extreme and both morally and politically troubling action.)
From Pacem in Terris:
"Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.
We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.
Moreover, man has a natural right to be respected. He has a right to his good name. He has a right to freedom in investigating the truth, and-within the limits of the moral order and the common good-to freedom of speech and publication, and to freedom to pursue whatever profession he may choose. He has the right, also, to be accurately informed about public events.
In the economic sphere, it is evident that a man has the inherent right not only to be given the opportunity to work, but also to be allowed the exercise of personal initiative in the work he does.
The worker is likewise entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice. This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity.
Each man should act on his own initiative, conviction, and sense of responsibility, not under the constant pressure of external coercion or enticement. There is nothing human about a society that is welded together by force. Far from encouraging, as it should, the attainment of man's progress and perfection, it is merely an obstacle to his freedom.
Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.
... a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides men with no effective incentive to work for the common good. And even if it did, it would certainly be offensive to the dignity of free and rational human beings. Authority is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every man has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all men are equal in natural dignity, no man has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for He alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart.
The attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of civil authorities. In working for the common good, therefore, the authorities must obviously respect its nature, and at the same time adjust their legislation to meet the requirements of the given situation.
The common welfare further demands that in their efforts to co-ordinate and protect, and their efforts to promote, the rights of citizens, the civil authorities preserve a delicate balance. An excessive concern for the rights of any particular individuals or groups might well result in the principal advantages of the State being in effect monopolized by these citizens.
Here, then, we have an objective dictated first of all by reason. There is general agreement-or at least there should be-that relations between States, as between individuals, must be regulated not by armed force, but in accordance with the principles of right reason: the principles, that is, of truth, justice and vigorous and sincere co-operation.
Furthermore, relations between States must be regulated by the principle of freedom. This means that no country has the right to take any action that would constitute an unjust oppression of other countries, or an unwarranted interference in their affairs.
The United Nations Organization has the special aim of maintaining and strengthening peace between nations, and of encouraging and assisting friendly relations between them, based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and extensive cooperation in every field of human endeavor.
A clear proof of the farsightedness of this organization is provided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The preamble of this declaration affirms that the genuine recognition and complete observance of all the rights and freedoms outlined in the declaration is a goal to be sought by all peoples and all nations.
We are, of course, aware that some of the points in the declaration did not meet with unqualified approval in some quarters; and there was justification for this. Nevertheless, We think the document should be considered a step in the right direction, an approach toward the establishment of a juridical and political ordering of the world community. It is a solemn recognition of the personal dignity of every human being; an assertion of everyone's right to be free to seek out the truth, to follow moral principles, discharge the duties imposed by justice, and lead a fully human life. It also recognized other rights connected with these.
What has so far been achieved is insufficient compared with what needs to be done; all men must realize that. Every day provides a more important, a more fitting enterprise to which they must turn their hands-industry, trade unions, professional organizations, insurance, cultrual institutions, the law, politics, medical and recreational facilities, and other such activities. The age in which we live needs all these things. It is an age in which men, having discovered the atom and achieved the breakthrough into outer space, are now exploring other avenues, leading to almost limitless horizons."