There is something about the physics of the universe that doesn’t tolerate chaos indefinitely. Scientific research shows that chaotic systems eventually tend to break into some sort of order and pattern. These days we have to hope that chaos theory has it right and that we will see the chaos brought on by terrorism, mass shootings, and civil strife cracking into something beautiful — or at least sensible.
More than 50 years ago, Pope St. John XXIII penned “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”). It was released in the background of tensions with the Soviet and Chinese Communist governments and threats of nuclear warfare. New nations were emerging in post-colonial Africa and Asia, and Israeli-Arab conflicts were heating up. Economic, racial, and ethnic stresses were also on the rise.
The saintly pope spoke about several trends evident in his 1963 world. He talked about the importance of empowering workers so that they truly might share the fruits of their labors. He noted the enhanced roles of women in society and the rise of participative democracies on the global scene. John XXIII reminded “all men of good will” that we humans speak up strongly for our rights — rights which we clearly deserve — but that we cannot forget our obligations. The pope emphasized our call to advance the common good. He offered this classic description of what that means: “the sum total of those conditions of social living whereby men are enabled to achieve their own integral perfection more fully and more easily.”
Essentially, St. John XXIII was saying that there cannot be peace anywhere unless people attend to the common good of those among whom they live. And he claimed that peace has much to do with human perfection.
A mistaken notion of perfection has long bedeviled Catholic Christian thought. It is not super-neat penmanship, crisp pleats, perpetual good hair days, or assignments submitted ahead of schedule. In the understanding of St. Thomas Aquinas, perfection means the fulfillment of what one is called to be. There is a perfection of creatures, a perfection of the universe, and a perfection of us. Our perfection is simply becoming what evangelist Matthew Kelly repeatedly terms “the best versions of ourselves.”
St. John XXIII has said that the perfection of the human community requires balance — seeking our own good, while also looking out for the good of others across the street and across the oceans. A core respect for human life is bolstered by concern that other people enjoy a decent standard of living. People flourish when they can live freely, seek truth, and worship as their consciences dictate. They should be able to choose their state in life, have the means to support a family, and move (even across borders) for the good of that family. They are owed reasonable guarantees of safety, under the protection of just laws.
Chaos prevails when people risk being tossed in literal or proverbial dumpsters or, worse, being blown up because they do not share one group’s perceptions or do their bidding.
Good Pope John gave us keys to boosting the transformation from earthly chaos to divine design. He called all citizens of the planet to find ways to “overcome the barriers that divide, cherish the bonds of mutual charity, understand others, and pardon those who have done them wrong.” In 2015, we had poignant examples of that in Charleston from the parishioners of Mother Emmanuel. May we share their amazing grace.