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THE PEACE POPE: BENEDICT XVI
By Justin Soutar
January 12, 2006 (Revised April 11, 2006)
This article previously appeared in Inside the Vatican (June/July 2006, pp. 36-39).
Why did Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger take the name Benedict XVI? Most commentators stress the importance of two men: Saint Benedict (480-550) and Pope Benedict XV. Clearly the cardinal wanted to honor and follow in the footsteps of both. The saint would guide him in renewing the Church and helping Europe return to its Christian roots. The Pope of World War I would be his guide in carrying out efforts to bring the dream of peace and justice to a world constantly torn by unjust wars and murderous violence.
Saint Benedict Christianized most of Europe, through his order of Benedictine monks which grew rapidly, spreading the word of Christ, respect for the authority of the Church, for classical learning and for constructive labor throughout the continent. He, perhaps more than anyone else, prepared the ground for Europe’s future Christian identity. This is why the Church conferred on him the title, “Patron of Europe.” Ratzinger has long seen Europe in desperate need of once again being Christianized and has often spoken of planting Gospel seeds which could grow, bear fruit and eventually restore Europe’s Christian heritage.
Referring to Benedict XV shortly after his election, Ratzinger declared: “In his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples, profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is above all a gift from God, a fragile and precious gift to be invoked, safeguarded and constructed, with contributions day after day from everyone.”
Benedict XV’s great work – he was Pope from 1914-1922 – was trying to persuade European leaders to bring the meaningless slaughter of World War I to an end. It was a heroic but unsuccessful mission. He could not move the Allies to stop the fratricidal conflict which eventually killed more than any previous war in history. President Woodrow Wilson called it “war to end all wars,” but it is now widely regarded by scholars as having been both unnecessary and having led to an even more deadly slaughter – World War II. As John Pollard shows in his “The Unknown Pope: Benedict XV – 1914-1918 – and the Pursuit of Peace” (London 1999), Benedict carried out vast humanitarian projects to alleviate suffering but was insulted, attacked, misrepresented and consigned to the bone yard of history by many leading politicians and historians of his time. Part of Ratzinger’s motivation in taking the name Benedict had to have been to correct this mistreatment. Not only does Ratzinger recognize his predecessor’s noble efforts and pivotal role in modern Church history, he also shares his longing for a just and lasting peace.
Historian Thomas Fleming is convinced that Ratzinger took the name Benedict “to remind the world of the tragic story of his predecessor, and how close he came to bringing World War I to an early conclusion.” (History News Network – http://hnn.us/articles/11494.html )
Ratzinger, by dedicating his papacy to peace, was also reaffirming a fundamental conviction held by all the popes of the 20th century – that war was diabolical and has come increasingly to threaten the essential message of the Gospel and to endanger both the well-being of the Church and the world.
British historian Christopher Dawson pointed out that this mission of saving Christian culture and civilization is explicitly described in the writings of both Pius XI and XII. Some fifty years ago Dawson spelled out the harm sown by materialism and totalitarianism in depriving nations of their moral and ethical inheritance and making citizens submit “to the absolute control of forces which possess unlimited technological power and resources, but which are themselves blind, because they lack spiritual knowledge and direction. In this dark world … the Papacy speaks to the nations as the representative of the only power that can ‘lead man back from the shadows into the light. The Church alone can make him conscious of the past, master of the present, and secure for the future. Like the mother of a family, she daily gathers around her all her sons scattered over the world and brings them into the unity of her vital Divine Principle.’ (Pius XII, Allocution of Feb.20, 1946.)”
Dawson went on to explain that this “supra-national mission of the Church as the center of spiritual unity in a divided humanity . . . has been developed and actualized by the popes of the twentieth century throughout the course of their apostolic ministry.” This led him to this startling conclusion: “We seem to see the beginnings of a new Pentecostal dispensation by which again ‘all men hear in their own tongues the wonderful works of God’. The pontificates of the twentieth century have occurred in a catastrophic period, full of wars and the rumors of wars and the distress of nations, but they have also seen the dawn of a new hope for humanity. They foreshadow the birth of a new Christendom—a Society which is not confined, as in the past, to a single group of nations and a single civilization but which is common to every people and language and unites all the members of the human family in the divine community of the Mystical Body of Christ.”
It is far beyond the scope of this essay to trace in detail how Benedict XVI’s seven predecessors understood and carried out this evangelical mission. But we can very briefly describe Benedict XV’s efforts of nearly a century ago as background for Benedict XVI’s present efforts to prevent terrorism and war and promote peace in today’s world.
Benedict XV virtually gave his life to convince European belligerents to stop their deadly combat for land, profits, spheres of influence and national egotism. His papacy is the bench mark for the way successive popes continued and intensified the Vatican’s commitment to world peace, including John Paul II’s intense negotiations, which were of immense importance for the well-being of the globe.
In the spring of 1917, with a year of bloodshed still to come, Benedict XV presented his “Plea for Peace” to the warring nations. It called on the leaders of nations to practice mutual understanding and patience and commitment and be willing to make reasonable compromises. As preliminary steps, he called for the end of fighting, relinquishment of occupied territories, limitation on arms production, freedom of the seas and a just, comprehensive peace treaty through negotiations.
The proposal met with considerable interest from the Germans, Austrians and Russians, but there was cynicism from France and passionate resistance from England, which was determined to keep control of Germany’s African colonies that it had conquered. The only formal answer came from America’s President Woodrow Wilson. His reply, however, was not because he wanted peace but because he feared the Pope’s plan could move American Catholics to oppose his decision to bring the U.S. into the war. There was considerable anti-war sentiment in the U. S. at that time, which Wilson himself had once shared. But by 1917, Wilson, like the English leaders, had become an uncompromising hawk and was determined to “to end all war” by crushing Germany totally.
His letter to the Pope, began by pretending sympathy. “Every heart that has not been blinded and hardened by this terrible war must be touched by this moving appeal of His Holiness the Pope.” There was, however, he went on, a terrible threat to peace and liberty. It was caused entirely by the German leaders. These men were demonic. They must be destroyed so that the Allies could “deliver the free peoples of the world from the menace of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible government, which . . . secretly planned to dominate the world.”
Now another Benedict is facing a very different situation, but passion and prejudice again play key roles. Ironically some of the explanations for opposing dialogue and negotiated settlements sound very similar to those expressed when Benedict XV pleaded for peace nearly 90 years ago. The demonized enemy today is not Germany but those nations opposed to U.S. hegemony.
Benedict XVI has no illusions about the mindset of terrorists. He experienced the irrational hatred of student rioters who harassed him in 1968 in Germany; he considered them communist terrorists and, after trying to reason with them, concluded that they would use more meetings only to misrepresent his views and further their anti-religious, destructive ends. But he also knows that not all Muslims are terrorists. He believes in Christian-Muslim dialogue as the only way to make progress. Having been personally involved in John Paul II’s two unsuccessful attempts to dissuade U.S. governments from using military force, he is well aware that the interests of the Holy See and those of U.S. Presidents are usually close to those of the Vatican, but far from identical. He, like John Paul II, opposes unilateral military action and will, as far as possible, pursue dialogue with Muslim leaders.
Last June, when he received the Guinean ambassador El Hadj Aboubacar Dione at Castel Gandolfo, he sounded very much like his six predecessors in the Chair of Peter in stating his vision for the world: “In order to respond effectively to the people’s aspirations for true peace, a gift that comes to us from God, it is our duty to commit ourselves to building it on the firm foundations of truth, justice and solidarity.”
Through the bloodbaths of the 20th century each pope has repeated essential conditions for peace: truth, justice, caritas and impartiality. Benedict continues this by advocating greater respect for all parties and an even-handed application of international laws, together with his insistence on the legitimacy and necessity of a major role for the UN, an institution distrusted, ignored or criticized by many American Catholics. They ask: “In a world living under the shadow of terrorism, isn’t the Pope being too idealistic? After all, international law has always been enforced with military power. The UN cannot be counted on to defend Christian truths.”
Nevertheless, Benedict is gradually unveiling a broad program for peace, calling simultaneously for an end to fighting, the arms race, global poverty and terrorism, by means of negotiations through a reformed UN acting on moral principles. He sees the solutions to peace, poverty, suffering and unjust political and economic exploitation as inextricably connected. He constantly draws our attention to the importance of international laws and humanitarian actions, noting that the value of law and humanitarian assistance are of prime importance. He calls for nations to appreciate and correctly apply international laws and points out the need from bringing those laws up to date by observing “precise norms applicable to the changing scenarios of today’s armed conflicts and the use of ever newer and more sophisticated weapons.”
The key to his message is that removing the roots of terrorism – poverty, ignorance, prejudice, injustice – will bring far greater success than “a war on terrorism to destroy all terrorism.” Benedict insists that consideration be given, not only to terrorism’s political and social roots, “but also to its deeper cultural, religious and ideological motivations.”
In his 2006 World Day of Peace message, Benedict XVI turned to “those
governments which count on nuclear arms as the means of ensuring the security of their countries.” He reminded them: “The truth of peace requires that all – whether those governments which openly or secretly possess nuclear arms, or those planning to acquire them – agree to change their course by clear and firm decisions, and strive for a progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament. The resources which would be saved could then be employed in projects of development capable of benefiting all their people, especially the poor.” The pope’s rationale is simple: “Spending money on social justice and economic development removes incentives to war, brings peace, which protects us from harm, which permits us to disarm.”
Referring to the UN world summit last September in New York, Pope Benedict urged “the international community to commit itself with firm determination to furthering peace and justice.” But the U.S. vetoed the Global Economic Development Plan for Africa, prompting His Holiness to regret that any nations would block such humanitarian plans. He also lamented the U.S. pressure that moved other nations’ not to reaffirm their commitment to the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000, which aimed at cutting global poverty in half by 2015. Later the US refused to commit 0.7 percent of its gross domestic production to worldwide poverty relief.
Benedict is deeply concerned that the reality of millions of innocent people starving to death in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East is never adequately addressed. He seldom expresses these concerns without noting that economic development is not only a matter of basic justice, but a matter of national security as well. He voiced his peace and humanitarian priorities at the UN’s grand summit in New York last September when he sent Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State, with instructions to “address important topics concerning world peace, respect for human rights, the promotion of development and the reinforcement of the United Nations Organization. . . . I express my fervent wishes that the Governments gathered there may find suitable solutions to achieve the important goals that have been established in a spirit of harmony and generous solidarity. In particular, I wish them success in putting into practice effective practical measures to respond to the most urgent problems posed by the extreme poverty, diseases and hunger that afflict so many peoples.”
Though Rome is unalterably opposed to the UN’s promotion of abortion and
contraception, the Pope realizes that working with the world government is the only practical way to further desperately needed humanitarian and peaceful purposes. At the same time he urges the world body to reform itself in accord with sound moral principles.
Even in the difficult dialogue with Muslims he is eager to continue because there is no other route to follow toward understanding and justice. He recently pointed to Guinea as proof that cooperation, not confrontation, can lead to peaceful relations between Christian and Muslim peoples: “I rejoice to know that in Guinea, Christians and Muslims are working together for the common good of society.’ He added: “In developing relations of trust, with respect for the legitimate rights of each community, believers, in union with all people of good will, contribute to building a society that is free from every kind of moral and social degradation, so that each one can live in dignity and solidarity. Crucial to dialogue, and ultimately to lasting peace, is trust and respect between America and other nations. Moreover, the degradations – from pornography to satanic music – that have been spread across the world in a degenerate culture, must end.”
Pope Benedict pleads that interreligious dialogue not be halted because of terrorist acts. That, he says, would be a victory for the parties of death and violence. No matter what the difficulties, Benedict declares: “the Catholic Church remains committed to pursuing her commitment to encourage understanding and respect among the believers of
the different religious traditions.”
Fear of terrorism, intensified by the ghastly violence in Spain, France and England and in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, has driven many Catholics to define and condemn Islam as a religion of terror. But such a blanket condemnation is not based on careful and impartial analysis of the entire situation. . Even Daniel Pipes – intractable foe of Muslim militants, zealous defender of all Israeli interests, accused by Arabs a “destroyer of bridges” and “full of hatred and bigotry,” described by a friendly journalist as waging “hand to hand combat” with militants – even he, does not equate Muslim terrorism with Islam. "It's a mistake,” he says, “to blame Islam, a religion 14 centuries old, for the evil that should be ascribed to militant Islam, a totalitarian ideology less than a century old. Militant Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution." He also makes the points that only 10 to 15 percent of Muslims support terrorism. (Janet Tassel, Harvard Magazine (January-February, 2005); See also, Center for Religious Freedom/Freedom House, Paul Marshall, 2006.)
There is no doubt that countless Muslims, from Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, Afghanistan and beyond, are bitterly anti-American. But many in the Vatican feel that what is needed is an intense effort to get to the root of the American-Muslim antagonism. They ask: Why have the mass of Americans become convinced that the Muslim religion has created the suicide bombers? Why are hundreds of suicide bombers and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Muslims convinced that the U. S. is determined to destroy the Muslim faith and way of life? There are those around Benedict who say he would like to see the U. S. spend less on its arsenal of destructive weapons and more on a careful study of the causes of the hatred and bitterness between Americans and Muslims.
In the face of opposition and attack, Pope Benedict XVI remains as unshakably dedicated to the cause of peace, as his once maligned predecessor, Benedict XV. Both men should be seen as spiritual, impartial promoters of justice and Christian love, not as political figures. The message of both transcends any national interests and is singularly aimed at justice, morality and truth.
Curiously, in the so-called prophecies of Malachy there is mention of the 265th pope (Benedict XVI) being crowned with “the glory of the olive” – the olive plant being the symbol of peace.
Copyright © 2006 by Justin Soutar. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the explicit written permission of the author.