The World According to Benedict

On January 11, Pope Benedict XVI met with the diplomats accredited to the Holy See for his traditional New Year’s greeting. In the Vatican’s grand Sala Regia, under frescoes depicting great moments in Church history, the pope spoke about the world from his point of view – as a spiritual leader. Most of the reporting, predictably, treated him as if he were a politician announcing various public policies. But Catholics – and non-Catholics who really want to hear what the pope has to say – should approach him in a very different way. When you do, some surprising things jump immediately into high relief.

For instance, Benedict started within the context of Christmas, when Jesus Christ “[came] to lift up all things to himself, to restore unity to creation” (Preface of Christmas II). This is a large vision: the unity with which Christ and Benedict are concerned (and hope to advance towards) will be between man and nature!

The pope then moved on to the Church: “The Church is open to everyone because, in God, she lives for others!” The Church can then uniquely see the different dimensions of the economic recession. It was caused by a “self-centered and materialistic way of thinking which fails to acknowledge the limitations inherent in every creature.” The root-cause of the recession links directly to the cause of the tragedies under Communist governments that dominated so much of Asia and left so much wreckage in their wake. Not only did they wreck many lives, but also destroyed natural resources. Like those who caused the recession, the Communist governments lost touch with the integrity of man and nature.

Here is the foundation for a theological view of the world: the supreme value is the human being in his worldly context. Ecological concerns and monetary acquisition cannot be separated from a profound respect for the dignity of man. The Holy Father summed up Thomas Aquinas’ teaching as: “man represents all that is most noble in the universe (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 29, a. 3).” This truth gets lost either in the obsession with ecology at the expense of man or in grabbing natural resources instead of developing “forms of agricultural and industrial production capable of respecting creation and satisfying the primary needs of all” (Message for the 2010 World Day of Peace, No. 10).

Here, too, lie the roots of peace. The just approach to resources and to human values grounds true peace. But there are a thousand reasons why people miss the chance for peace. In Benedict’s words: “Together with the inability of the parties directly involved to step back from the spiral of violence and pain spawned by these conflicts, there is the apparent powerlessness of other countries and the international organizations to restore peace, to say nothing of the indifference, amounting practically to resignation, of public opinion worldwide.”

The pope then drew the threads of his thought together under the rubric of the “moral order.” This is the nub of his teaching. Political relationships necessarily exist within a substantial moral matrix that has important consequences. Allied to the truth of the moral order is the obligation to educate people in truth: “The community of believers can and wants to take part in this, but, for it to do so, its public role must be recognized.” The Church must be free to function so that she can serve humanity. In many parts of the world today, of course, that freedom does not exist.

You will notice that he is describing a valid kind of secularity, “a positive and open secularity” in which the temporal order and the spiritual order each have a certain kind of autonomy even as they are interrelated. (Note as well that this secularity is almost the polar opposite of “secularism,” an anti-religious ideological stance quite common in the developed world.) Benedict’s strategy has been to unpack this concept of the properly secular through a reflection on the environment and its relation to man. He commended the 2007 Lisbon Treaty for recognizing some of these values. Ever concerned about Europe, however, he added: “I express my hope that in building its future, Europe will always draw upon the wellsprings of its Christian identity.” This was also the main theme of his famous speech in Subiaco, just before he was elected pope: a proper understanding of secularity needs the Christian insight about man and nature.

That is why he returned to the environment and man’s relation to it. A genuine reflection on the environment always leads back to basic principles about man: “One such attack [on man] comes from laws or proposals which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes.” Natural disasters too point us to the human sphere of international solidarity between nations. He referred to the response to the terrible earthquake in the Abruzzi region of Italy, and to the treaty between Croatia and Slovenia on common borders. Naturally, he did not fail to make a plea, too, for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and protection for religious communities to practice their faith.

But culture and environment are not to be left out. The long troubled history of Jerusalem was telescoped into a plea “for the protection of the identity and sacred character of Jerusalem, and of its cultural and religious heritage, which is of universal value.” Cultural environment (not just the physical) and man are the two poles of Benedict’s anthropology. So he prayed in conclusion: “May the light and strength of Jesus help us to respect human ecology, in the knowledge that natural ecology will likewise benefit, since the book of nature is one and indivisible.”

Diplomats of the world, take heed!