My friend the nearly ubiquitous fair-minded former Rome correspondent for the ultra-lefty National Catholic Reporter has today an op-ed piece in The New York Times.
My emphases and comments.
Let’s have a look.
December 19, 2007
The Vatican’s Relative Truth
By JOHN L. ALLEN Jr.
POPE BENEDICT XVI has offered a couple of recent previews of what’s likely to be his core message to the United Nations next April, the projected highlight of his first visit to the United States. Last Tuesday, the pontiff released the text of his annual statement for the Vatican’s World Day of Peace, raising typical papal concerns like poverty and disarmament, but also a defense of the family based on heterosexual marriage and, in the section reflecting Benedict’s budding environmentalism, a reminder of human supremacy over the animal kingdom.
Ten days earlier in Rome, Pope Benedict offered a more targeted message in a meeting with Catholic nongovernmental groups that work with the United Nations, delivering a stern warning against the “bitter fruits” of “relativistic logic” and a “refusal to admit the truth about man and his dignity.” Given the titanic battles the Vatican has waged against certain United Nations agencies over abortion and birth control, his comments were quickly spun by the Italian press as a major papal “attack” ahead of next year’s General Assembly address.
But if the pope’s words have fed expectations of a “High Noon”-style showdown, they are likely to be dashed. Benedict had no intention of making an anti-United Nations jeremiad. Like every pope since the birth of the United Nations in 1945, Benedict supports robust global governance, in a fashion that has long bewildered neoconservative critics of the United Nations in the United States and elsewhere. If there was anything remarkable in what he said, it’s only that the Vatican’s public-relations crew still hasn’t found a way to keep the pope from making cosmetic missteps that distract attention from his message.
While the Vatican may have its differences with United Nations agencies over sex, [Though I wouldn’t say "sex", it is not to be disputed that the key issues concern UN support of abortion and contraception.] it also sees the organization as the lone realistic possibility for putting a human face on international politics and economics — what Pope John Paul II called a “globalization of solidarity.”
Moreover, Benedict undeniably has a point about relativism. From China to Iran to Zimbabwe, it’s common for authoritarian regimes to argue that rights like freedom of the press, religion and dissent represent Western — or even Anglo-American — traditions. If human rights are to be protected in a 21st century increasingly shaped by non-Western actors like China and the so-called Shiite axis from Lebanon to Central Asia, then a belief in objective truth grounded in universal human nature is critical. That’s hardly just a Catholic concern, but no one on the global scene is making the argument with the clarity of Benedict XVI.
Part of the problem is that so far, this cerebral pope has a track record of blurring such compelling arguments during his biggest turns on stage. When he visited Auschwitz in May 2006, for example, he offended some Jews by asserting that the Nazis tried to destroy Christianity too. Four months later, he set off a firestorm among Muslims with a lecture at the University of Regensburg by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman,” such as “his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” And in Brazil last May, the pope incensed indigenous people in Latin America by suggesting that Christianity was not imposed on them.
In each case, Benedict was actually trying to make a deeper point worth hearing. In Auschwitz, his contention was that objective truth grounded in God is the only bulwark against the blind will to power; his Regensburg address was devoted to reason and faith, arguing that reason shorn of faith becomes nihilism, while faith without reason ends in fanaticism and violence; and in Brazil, he argued that since Christ embraces all humanity, he cannot be foreign to anyone’s spiritual experience. [Go back and read Pope Benedict’s first Message for the World Day of Peace.]
Those ideas, however, were overshadowed by a few throwaway phrases that betray a worrying insensitivity to how unfamiliar audiences are likely to hear what he says. One would think that by now the lesson would have been learned, but all evidence is to the contrary. While it was intended to strike a tone of sympathy and common human concern, the speech to the nongovernmental groups instead came off as a screed.
Benedict’s trip to the United Nations in April will be his most important voyage to date, and his best opportunity to address the community of nations. He clearly has something valuable to say, a message that focuses on what he has termed a “dictatorship of relativism” menacing not just the Catholic Church or institutional religion, but everyone, especially the most vulnerable. The question is whether he’ll be able to find a language to ensure that what he pitches is also what people catch.
At this stage, the odds that he’ll succeed seem, well, only relatively good.
John L. Allen Jr. is the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and author of “The Rise of Benedict XVI.”
This is a basically excellent analysis. I am not in synch with all of his conclusions.
Allen is exactly correct in his understanding of what the Pope was trying to say at Regensburg, in Latin America, in his speech to the NGO’s.
However, I think he is wrong about the Pope making "gaffs" which then obscure the Pope’s message.
I don’t think the Pope is making mistakes. While I am ready to admit that sometimes the negative reactions surprise Pope Benedict, I think he knows exactly what he is doing. It may be that Mr. Allen is trying to explain away things Pope Benedict says with which he does not agree. Nor are Benedict’s speech writers and screeners incompetent or plotting to undermine the Pope.
We have to ratchet up our ability to listen closely, intensely, to this Pope. His worldview is more complicated than pundits would like it to be.
It may be that Mr. Allen is arguing that the Pope should go to the UN and be supportive without committing a "gaff" – like criticising the UN’s support of abortion. "Don’t blow it like you did at Regensburg, Auschwitz, Latin American and with the NGO’s. Holy Father, you’re real message is so important, so don’t obscure it by making your discourse too complicated. Dumb it down so people won’t misunderstand it and avoid the really hard issue."
Some things need to be kept in mind.
First, it is hard to tell what the Holy Father really thinks about certain issues of social doctrine. We just don’t know yet. We are going to have to see what his social encyclical says. Unitl we have more focused texts from him, we are just reading tea leaves, such as snippets from Deus caritas est or the speech to the NGO’s.
Second, the Vatican has always had a nearly desparate desire that the UN succeed in certain spheres, such as peace-keeping, poverty, hunger, etc. To a certain extent, the Holy See has tip-toed around elements of the UN that are simply bad. Yes, they have fought the good fight at key moments, but there is still a lot of tip-toeing. In my view, this is a mistaken strategy. There are those who desire a bigger, more influential UN, even world government. If the Holy See thinks (if Pope Benedict thinks) there is a problem in the heart of the EU, then wait until the UN gets stronger. The negatives of the EU would be magnified a thousand times in a stronger UN.
Third, a huge slice of the progressvist Catholic left still cling to the New York Times.
I think the Holy See, the Pope especially, must take the UN to the woodshed over the bad points.
A lot of people are very worried Pope Benedict might actually do that.
I am not by this that I am sure this was was John Allen’s intent in writing his op-ed piece. He highlights issues which are useful for provoking discussion. At the same time, I am pretty sure some people will use his points to argue that the Pope shouldn’t bring to strong an agenda to the UN.