Recently Pope Benedict XVI was the center of controversy in the Italian news media for an address he had made. The pope had criticized international discussions marked by a relativism that denies “the truth about man and his dignity” and rejects “the possibility of an ethics based on the recognition of natural law.” This was taken to mean, according to some Italian commentators, that the pope is preparing to attack the United Nations when he addresses the General Assembly during his April trip to the United States.
The Vatican responded that this was not the case. Like his recent predecessors, Pope Benedict remains a supporter of the U.N. In fact, as we approach the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the pope’s comments could be seen more appropriately as a strong defense of the U.N.’s founding mission: to build a new global community based on the rule of law, reason and human rights.
This should be obvious to Americans. Our Founding Fathers accepted natural law and rejected relativism when they declared that all people are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. Nonetheless, the concern raised by the Italian media has led to similar worries in the United States. Some point to a pattern of public relations “missteps” by the pope: the Regensburg speech with its defense of reason, and rejection of violence in the name of religion; the Auschwitz visit with the statement that millions of Christians were also killed by the Nazi regime in the death camps (including thousands of Catholic priests); and the Brazil trip when Benedict rejected the idea that Christianity was imposed upon the native peoples of our hemisphere.
These controversies involve much more than a dispute over headlines or “sound bites.” At Regensburg, the pope defended the achievement of Catholicism from St. Augustine through St. Thomas Aquinas of reconciling faith and reason into a coherent worldview capable of finding alternatives to the age-old human habit of “might makes right.” Reject this great accomplishment of Western Christianity and one can more easily ignore the Christian roots of Europe. Similarly, those who ignore the millions of Christians killed by the Nazis may be more influenced by the slanderous idea of “Hitler’s pope,” unconcerned with the Nazi death camps. Finally, the conten-tion that Christianity was imposed upon the native people of the New World undermines 500 years of evangelization and overlooks entirely the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mary appeared not with the power of a conquering invader but with the humility of a pregnant, mixed-race girl whose sign was not a sword but a bouquet of flowers.
In each case, critics of the Church have attempted to rewrite history, placing Catholics on the defensive in the current “culture wars.” Perhaps, some argue, the pope should consider how secular elites and others will use his words to create controversy. He should not be subjected to the game of political “gotcha” that is the stock in trade of so many in the news media.
But there is a more profound issue here: What is really at stake is whether Pope Benedict will be able to define his pastoral mission and teaching ministry on his own terms or whether he will have to submit to the politically correct terms of debate established by the secular media and other critics of the Church. Pope Benedict is one of the great intellectual and moral leaders of our age. He humbly and straightforwardly defends the truth.
In this issue of Columbia we consider the ability of Catholics to influence society in the 21st century. Certainly there is much for all of us to do, but I would suggest this as the place to start: Let all of us — bishops, priests and laity — face our future together, standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with our great pope.