These were his remarks (reprinted with permission):
A Catholic News Service article mentioned that Pope Benedict XVI will be paying close attention to what people have to say in the United States. “This pope is a great listener,” said papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi. Well, I think this is just terrific, because I hope he will listen carefully to our words and perhaps even act on some of them. This is what I would say to the pope if I have the opportunity to meet him.
Pope Benedict, I would first like to defend you against some scurrilous allegations. I don’t believe the pope is the Antichrist, as many Christians do — including Pastor John Hagee, Sen. John McCain’s spiritual advisor, who also called the Catholic Church the whore of Babylon and a cult. It is not the whore of Babylon, and is no more a cult than is Mormonism, Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, or any other religion that values faith more than reason.
I was thrilled when you said, “A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God.” Unfortunately, you didn’t claim these as your own words, but as arguments used by atheists. Still, I give you credit in this instance for accurately portraying my view.
As a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, I support your free speech right to promote your beliefs, just as I supported the rights of the American Nazi Party (the American version of the Hitler Youth) to march in Skokie years ago. I have always felt that the best counter to bad or hateful speech is good speech, not censorship. If you agree with these free speech views and the importance of dialogue with those with whom you may disagree, I hope you will invite some of us to the Vatican to better understand our perspective.
I would like to express my appreciation to Ellen Johnson and American Atheists for bringing diverse groups together for this event. As President of the Secular Coalition for America, we also encourage different nontheistic groups to put aside the 5% on which they disagree and cooperate on the 95% with which we agree. So, Pope Benedict, I consider it progress that you, too, have begun to look for ways to cooperate rather than continue fighting against factions with whom you have doctrinal differences.
Unfortunately, your cooperation with other Christians is for the purpose of defending the faith against secularism, which you declare to be a fundamental problem of modern society. You have even made it the goal of your papacy to counteract secularism, claiming that atheism was responsible for some of the greatest forms of cruelty in history, citing leaders like Stalin and Mao. I would point out that the cruelty under such regimes was made possible not because its leaders were atheists, but because its leaders were granted unquestioned power and loyalty. Dissenters were banished, imprisoned, or killed. Such actions, whether propagated by secular or religious regimes, are inexcusable. Democratic countries that tolerate dissent are the countries most likely to promote human rights for all people. These happen to be the secular governments you decry, not the theocratic governments you apparently would like us to emulate.
You have the right, Pope Benedict, to argue that our secular country should become more theocratic, but we have an important ally: our Constitution, our godless U.S. Constitution, which gives us the right to worship one, many, or no gods. We proudly promote freedom of conscience for all people. We will defend secularism against theocratic attacks, whether such attacks come from fundamentalist Islam or from your Church. Such attacks motivate us even more to keep our government secular.
You said you are greatly disturbed because atheists put their faith in human reason and freedom. I, too, would be greatly disturbed if human reason and freedom had led to atheist Crusades, atheist Inquisitions, atheist Witch Burnings, or atheist Suicide Bombers.
You said in an encyclical that many people reject religious faith because they no longer find the prospect of an eternal afterlife attractive. Not true. We don’t find an eternal afterlife unattractive, we just find it unbelievable. You say that fear of God is ultimately at the root of modern atheism. But how can we fear a god whose existence we don’t accept? We do fear many of God’s defenders, those inspired by God to destroy infidels and heretics.
You also decry moral relativism, which undermines your pronouncements on absolutism. Yes, we generally are tolerant of other points of view coming from those who wish us no harm. We are also willing to change when new evidence warrants. Otherwise, we might be stuck defending some outlandish claims written thousands of years ago. We are mindful of the words of Lord Acton, speaking about papal absolutism: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Even your Church has shown inclinations toward relativism. In 1990, as Cardinal Ratzinger, you were still maintaining that the actions of the Church at the time of Galileo were justified because it took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s teaching. However, in 2000, your predecessor finally apologized for the Church’s treatment of Galileo. Though several hundred years late, after such overwhelming scientific evidence that even your Church could no longer deny, this is still progress away from absolutism. Your Church also apologized in 2000 for excesses in the Inquisition, for Witch Burning, and for its silence during the Holocaust.
Now, Pope Benedict, I would like to suggest that you take action on a few obvious items so that a future pope (if the papacy still exists) does not have to apologize for them. If you care about human rights, please support stem cell research that likely one day will lead to cures for many diseases. And stop denigrating gays and lesbians simply because they want a loving sexual relationship. Even though you oppose a woman’s right to choose, at least drop your opposition to the use of condoms. You must realize that comprehensive sex education programs make abortions more rare. Do you want a future pope to apologize for all those who died from AIDS because your Church preferred death without condoms to life with condoms?
Your Church can look rather foolish when its reasons keep changing while your conclusions remain the same. It used to accept the wisdom of St. Bonaventure, who said: “Since only the male was made in the image of God, only the male can receive the godlike office of priest.” After such claims of female inferiority became a bit embarrassing, even to the Church, the story changed to, “Only males can hold positions of leadership in the Church because all the apostles were male.” By that reasoning, I am more qualified to be pope than you. All the apostles were married Jews, just like me. So either your Church must again change its reasoning, Pope Benedict XVI, or I would like future consideration to become Pope Herb I.
The next peaceful protests will be held this weekend.