Pope’s Message for World Day of Peace

I was at the press conference presenting the Holy Father’s Message for the World Day of Peace (1 January).

You might recall that I think last year’s was a foundational document for this Pontificate, as it spelled out many of the things this Pope is concerned with. This year extends what I read last year.

When we read a papal document, or any other writing, it is good to keep in mind that Pope’s and theologians have starting points. They usually give you a lens or two through which they (and you) can look at the problem they mean to address. This is the case with the Message for Peace, released today. Other people will have readings of the document. Others will certainly get into the content in some details. I am offering only a first help for your own reading. Then I will get into only a few details, leaving space for others.  Allow me to ramble a bit.  Time doesn’t permit me to do more.

The Message for Peace seems to have two theological starting points. The first is the text of Gen 1:27 describing that God made man in His image and likeness, male and female. The next is a text of St. Augustine of Hippo (s. 169,11,13): “God created us without our aid; but he did not choose to save us without our aid.” This famous point of the Doctor of Grace, Pope Benedict calls a “striking synthesis”. The Pope then creates from these a kind of diving board into a conclusion (emphasis in the original): “Consequently all human beings have the duty to cultivate an awareness of this twofold aspect of gift and task.” (Aside: remember that last year the Pope used Augustine as his starting point: Augustine’s concept of “tranquility of order” as the foundation of peace.)

This conclusion then has implications for all sorts of pressing modern questions, such as people who are deprived of fundamental rights to food, means, etc., political or economic freedom, religious liberty, care for the environment, right to life itself, the treatment of women, the race for control of energy, how conflicts and wars are conducted and why, what to do with nuclear arms, and, finally, what Christians must do about these things.

So, the document focus on the inherent dignity of the human person, as God made him, as the foundation of authentic peace. Benedict identifies threats to peace because the human person is not treated with the proper respect.

Moving beyond sectarian considerations, Benedict refers constantly to the natural law, written into man’s being and he speaks of a “transcendental grammar”: “the boy of rules for individual action and the reciprocal relationships of persons in accordance with justice and solidarity, I inscribed on human consciences, in which the plan of God is reflected.”

As an aside: It is interesting that this description with the word “grammar”, calls to mind that Benedict has spoken now at length about God as LOGOS, word, reason, the internal logic of things. Man is made in the image of God who is the Spoken Word. So, the logos is imagined and echoed in man. We must act in accordance with this. This means that there is a “conversation” going on. Words are spoken and heard. We are in dialogue with God, on the one hand, and man, on the other. Words, reason, everything man is, signals relationship. Words are not in a void. Joseph Ratzinger has written about how we cannot have a relationship with an idea or a concept (expressed in words merely). We have relationships with persons, divine or human. In the Message today I found this phrase, “

Last year, and ever since, I have suggested that the Pope’s first Message for Peace was an extremely important document, through which we could get a grasp on other things that followed. It was, in a sense, theologically programmatic. Last year, like this year, he showed that true peace must be rooted in the right concept of the rights of man. He pointed to forces that violate the rights of man and therefore threaten peace: first, religious fundamentalism and, also, secular or materialistic relativism. He was obviously criticizing radical Islam, which is creating unstable places and stirring violence and also regimes that are rooted in materialism, such as Communism, as well as those who are reducing everything to the views of man alone without consideration of objective truth and God. The Pope picks all these themes up again this year speaking also to the “cultural denigration of religious beliefs” (no. 5). So, here Benedict explores also ideas that are either “indifferent” to religion (and thus the transcendent grammar of man) and also “weak” ideas about who man is. The comments on “weak” ideas are interesting.

11. Today, however, peace is not only threatened by the conflict between reductive visions of man, in other words, between ideologies. It is also threatened by indifference as to what constitutes man’s true nature. Many of our contemporaries actually deny the existence of a specific human nature and thus open the door to the most extravagant interpretations of what essentially constitutes a human being. Here to clarity is necessary: a “weak” vision of the person, which would leave room for every conception, even the most bizarre, only apparently favours peace. In reality, it hinders authentic dialogue and opens the way to authoritarian impositions, ultimately leaving the person defenceless and, as a result, easy prey to oppression and violence. 12. A true and stable peace presupposes respect for human rights. Yet if these rights are grounded on a weak conception of the person, how can they fail to be themselves weakened? Here we can see how profoundly insufficient is a relativistic conception of the person when it comes to justifying and defending his rights.

Remember that in stating so clearly that man’s rights come from His being made in God’s image, that is, they are conferred by God and not man, any body or group which seeks on its own to confer to man his rights, based on their own conceptions of who man is and what rights ought to be, will inevitably go wrong and begin to violate man and destroy the roots of peace. This was also at the heart of last year’s message.

On another interesting point, the Pope spoke to “new forms of violence” developing in conflicts, which are not provided for by international law. This seems to refer to the issues surrounding the insurgency in Iraq and the terror inflicted on the population and the soldiers in the zone. He makes a good observation: “Increasingly, wars are not declared, especially when they are initiated by terrorist groups determined to attain their ends by terrorist groups determined to attain their ends y any means available.” Because of this, states need new rules to deal with this situation. We need new rules of conduct. This gets us into the issue of “just war” theory, which is referred to in footnote citing the CCC. In last year’s message, the Pope seemed pretty clearly to support military action in Iraq, saying that the in order to establish the conditions under which peace can be created there must at times be military intervention. He then praised soldiers involved in that action. This year, he is preoccupied with war that is conducted without norms or limits. This could be a reaction to the escalating problems of asymmetrical action in the Iraq theater. Frankly, to me, the Pope sounded a little worried in the document.

Moving along, finally, I think we all know that “Rawlsian” forces are driving the Church out of the public square by every means possible. Benedict says something interesting about this: “With gratitude to the Lord for having called him to belong to his Church, which is “the sign and safeguard of the transcendental dimension of the human person” in the world, the Christian will tirelessly implore from God the fundamental good of peace, which is of such importance in the life of each person. Moreover, he will be proud to serve the cause of peace with generous devotion…” Benedict then cites 1 John 4:8: “God is love” as the starting point of the Christian vocation, saying that we must be “staunch champions” of human dignity and “courageous builders” of peace. I think this all points to the absolute necessity never to allow the Church to be driven from the public square.

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  1. CDB says:

    “the Pope spoke to ‘new forms of violence’ developing in conflicts, which are not provided for by international law”
    If memory serves, in 1989 or 1990 the then Cardinal Ratzinger published an article in Communio which discussed the possible spread of new intra-national forms of violence and warfare that would result from the breakdown of a traditional moral framework in the modern world. He predicted that governments would have a very difficult time dealing with such threats. Unfortunately his predictions seem to have come true.

  2. Peter says:

    I wonder how much the Pope’s visit to Turkey and seeing the difficult conditions the Christians there live with every day has served to frame his current concern for the situation in Iraq. I don’t mean to suggest that he has changed his stance but if perhaps there has been an increase in the perceived immediacy of the situation. Implacable enemies with no regard for human life are a very difficult knot to untie in the context of just war. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out over time (hopefully not too interesting).

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