The pope as political activist

polypopeIs Pope Benedict XVI a political activist, an agitator for left-wing or right-wing issues? Rohan Sullivan of The Associated Press seems to think so.

In his story about the Pope’s opening address at World Youth Day, Sullivan portrayed Benedict in strictly political terms, focusing primarily on his remarks about the importance of protecting the environment:

The world’s natural resources are being squandered in the pursuit of “insatiable consumption,” Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday in a speech urging followers to care more for the environment and reconnect with the principle of peace.

Benedict, speaking to more than 200,000 pilgrims gathered for the Roman Catholic church’s youth festival, expanded on a theme that has led him to be dubbed “the green pope.”

The crowd, massed on a disused wharf in Australia’s largest city, regularly erupted in cheers that gave the event the feel of a sporting event.

“Some of you come from island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising water levels; others from nations suffering the effects of devastating drought,” the pope said, referring to global warming.

He noted that during his more than 20-hour flight from Rome to Sydney he had a bird’s eye view of a vast swath of the world that inspired awe and introspection.

“Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption,” he said.

It is true that Benedict stressed the importance of protecting the environment. It is also true that the Pope hit the environmental theme more in this address than any speeches he gave, say, during his visit this spring to the United States. So it’s natural and right for Sullivan to play up this angle.

Yet like Padraig Collin’s story for Irish Times, the rest of the AP story leaves a misleading impression: the Pope’s address was primarily about the environment or his praise for the Australian government’s apology to aborigines. It wasn’t.

Of the speech’s 24 paragraphs, 22 had little or nothing to do with the environment. These paragraphs were primarily theological and spiritual. Benedict warned of the dangers of relativism and secularism and extolled the virtues of Christian witness and charity. This should be no surprise. He is, after all, called His Holiness and Holy Father.

Not all of the stories about Benedict’s opening address were off the mark. Ed Johnson of Bloomberg News focused on the spiritual and religious nature of the pope’s remarks:

Pope Benedict XVI greeted tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered in Sydney for the largest youth festival in the world and declared the five-day celebration of faith a sign of the Catholic Church’s vitality.

“Standing before me I see a vibrant image of the universal church,” the 81-year-old pontiff told 140,000 pilgrims at Sydney Harbour’s Barangaroo wharf today. “The variety of nations and cultures from which you hail shows that indeed Christ’s good news is for everyone.”

This post is not meant to be too scolding. I understand why Sullivan latched on to the environmental theme: it was news in a way that Benedict’s remarks about relativism and secularism were not. But when reporters focus only on politics, as they did with Fr. Michael Pfleger, they make a categorical error.

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  • Claude

    I find it laughable that anyone would think that Pope Benedict is not a political activist or criticize the MSM for depicting him as such.

    He has directed the Church to take political positions on numerous issues, including endorsing the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, declaring that homosexual unions are “evil” and that allowing homosexual couples to adopt children would amount to violence against children. His predecessor also announced that “When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed . . . in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it.”

    This directive to Catholic politicians raises serious questions about the separation of church and state in countries such as Canada and the United States. Several prominent Catholic politicians, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Senator John Kerry, and General Wesley Clark, pointedly disassociated themselves from any obligation to follow the dictates of the Church hierarchy in secular matters.

    In any case, when a church leader becomes so enmeshed in political questions, he can hardly complain that he is regarded as a political activist.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Claude writes,

    He has directed the Church to take political positions on numerous issues, including endorsing the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, declaring that homosexual unions are “evil” and that allowing homosexual couples to adopt children would amount to violence against children.

    The Catholic Church does take political positions and does demand that if they want to remain Catholics in good standing, Catholic politicians vote in accord with church teaching.

    But surely we can agree the Pope is not concerned primarily with political activism. He views politics in light of religion, not the other way around.

  • Julia

    A good part of religious beliefs and exhortations have to do with right action or morality. Is the Pope only to speak about rosaries and not about sin? Sometimes that requires speaking about laws and legislation meant to curb or allow certain activities. In the US, religious figures cannot beat the drum for particular candidates, but they can surely speak to what actions and choices are and are not according to God’s plan. And nobody has to be a Catholic, anymore than anybody has to be a member of the Elks – both have rules on requirements for membership.

    BTW, the Pope has not signed on to Al Gore’s version of climate catastrophe. He made a speech not that long ago about not jumping to conclusions and paying more attention to actual scientific proof. [I'll try to locate it]. One commentator noted that the Pope may be using his comments on the misuse of nature as a way to gradually introduce secular folks to “natural law”.

    An in depth article on how various religious groups are dealing with Al Gore and climate change would be very interesting.

  • Julia

    Found it – from Dec 13, 2007 in the Daily Mail:

    Pope Benedict XVI has launched a surprise attack on climate change prophets of doom, warning them that any solutions to global warming must be based on firm evidence and not on dubious ideology.

    The leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering.

    The German-born Pontiff said that while some concerns may be valid it was vital that the international community based its policies on science rather than the dogma of the environmentalist movement.

    The 80-year-old Pope said the world needed to care for the environment but not to the point where the welfare of animals and plants was given a greater priority than that of mankind

    “Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow,” he said in the message entitled “The Human Family, A Community of Peace”.

    “It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.

    source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-501316/The-Pope-condemns-climate-change-prophets-doom.html

  • Jerry

    based its policies on science rather than the dogma of the environmentalist movement.

    That’s a nice, controversial statement that needs the perspective from those who say the opposite: that the science is driving the environmental movement and that those who oppose the findings of science are operating not on science but on dogma.

  • Brian Walden

    I guess the problem is that saying that the Pope is a political activist is half right. If you read “God is Love” his ideas about charity are politically radical. On the other hand, comments the Holy Father makes that seem to lap over into politics are motivated by morals rather than some political agenda. It’s when politics crosses a moral line that the Pope comments on politics – I’d venture that Benedict is quite liberal (by that I mean open minded, not Leftist) when it comes to political ideas that don’t involve moral questions. If you take his ideas wholesale, they don’t really fit into any political party (at least not the two American ones). So in this sense, the Pope doesn’t really play the political game. It’s only when you chop his ideas up, like pulling one small part out of a speech and making it the emphasis, that Benedict may seem to be motivated by a political agenda.

  • Claude

    I think anyone who would posit that a pope is only a religious figure knows nothing about Christian history. It is true that contemporary popes no longer have armies to enforce their pronouncements, but the pope is a head of state, whose “government” is organized according to those of medieval despots. In the past certainly popes have fought wars in order to gain property and power and have been intimately involved in all sorts of political questions. Wasn’t it a pope who decided that the bodies of New World Indians could be enslaved by European powers, but that their souls belonged to him?

    The Pope operates in the world as a political figure, who receives ambassadors from other political heads of state.

    You can’t insist on being a worldly king and simultaneously insist that you are non-political and should be written about only as a religious leader (as though religious questions were not themselves political).

    The MSM is correct to depict him as a political activist. (BTW, sometimes I agree with his political activism, such as his opposition to the death penalty, but that doesn’t make it something other than political activism.)

  • Brian Walden

    Claude, I don’t think that anyone here has said that the Pope should be viewed as “only a religious figure.” I’m not even sure what that means; Pope Benedict has written that religious faith must pour over into social and political life in the public square. I don’t think Pope Benedict even has a concept of a person being only a religious figure.

    I think Mark’s point is merely that it’s important to view the Pope’s political statements in the proper context. For example, when the Pope speaks on the environment his goal isn’t to support either the green movement or the anti-green movement (not sure what the proper term is) – his primary motivation is to address how the way that we use our resources affects our souls and the wellbeing of others. His primary motivation is reaching out to individuals, not lending his support to political movements.

    Whenever I read Benedict’s comments on the environment I always feel like he’s using the environment to teach about our human dignity, rather than preaching environmentalism as an end in itself.

  • Mike Lambert

    Claude said:

    Wasn’t it a pope who decided that the bodies of New World Indians could be enslaved by European powers, but that their souls belonged to him?

    Out of curiosity, do you have any information on this? Sounds “urban-legendish.”

  • Dan

    “I think anyone who would posit that a pope is only a religious figure knows nothing about Christian history. …. Wasn’t it a pope who decided that the bodies of New World Indians could be enslaved by European powers, but that their souls belonged to him?”

    No Claude, it wasn’t. It was a pope, specifically, Pope Paul III, who said essentially the opposite. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a Papal Bull called “Sublimis Deus.” It states in pertinent part:

    “The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.

    We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.

  • Martha

    So is this message political or religious?

    http://212.77.1.245/news_services/press/vis/dinamiche/a1_en.htm

    WATER: AN ESSENTIAL GOOD GIVEN BY GOD TO MAINTAIN LIFE

    VATICAN CITY, 15 JULY 2008 (VIS) – Today, the Holy Father’s message to Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, representative of the Holy See for the “Day of the Holy See” at the International Expo of Saragossa (Spain), was made public. The message, written in Spanish, is dated 10 July.

    “I am pleased to send a message of faith and hope”, the Pope writes, “to those who are visiting the 2008 Saragossa Expo dedicated to the complex themes tied to the importance of water for human life and the maintenance of equilibrium among the diverse elements of our world. The Holy See wanted to be present at the Expo with a pavilion that was jointly prepared with the archdiocese of Saragossa, which I thank for their generous commitment to promoting proper cultural initiatives that draw the visitor closer to the immense patrimony of spirituality, art, and social wisdom that is inspired by water and which has been safeguarded by the Catholic Church”.

    “We have to be aware that, regrettably, water – an essential and indispensible good that the Lord has given us to maintain and develop life -, because of incursions and pressures from various social factors, is today considered a good that must be especially protected through clear national and international policies and used according to sensible criteria of solidarity and responsibility. The use of water – which is seen as a universal and inalienable right – is related to the growing and urgent needs of those living in poverty, keeping in mind that the ‘limited access to drinkable water affects the wellbeing of an enormous number of people and is frequently the cause of illness, suffering, conflict, poverty, and also death’”.

    “Those who consider water today to be a predominantly material good”, the Pope concludes, “should not forget the religious meanings that believers, and Christianity above all, have developed from it, giving it great value as a precious immaterial good that always enriches human life on this earth. How can we not recall in this circumstance the suggestive message that comes to us from Sacred Scripture, which treats water as a symbol of purification and life? The full recovery of this spiritual dimension is ensured and presupposed for a proper approach to the ethical, political, and economic problems that affect the complex management of water on the part of all concerned, as well as in the national and international spheres”.

    Or is it saying that there is not a neat, tidy, clearly demarcated separation between the “natural” and the “supernatural”?

    No matter what any religious leader does, it’s going to have some element of politics. Even if it’s being instructed by the state that all he can talk about is tell his flock to say his prayers and keep his nose out of everything else. That’s a political stance – because if he sticks to just that, then he will either be accused of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ propaganda and propping up the unjust regime by *not* speaking out on political matters and merely sticking to religion, or he’ll be accused of interfering in the secular marketplace where religion has no place merely by re-iterating the traditional teachings of the Church.

    Sometimes you just can’t win whatever you do.

  • Jimmy Mac

    He’s a closet peacenik, dude … check out that left hand!

  • Claude

    Martha wrote:

    No matter what any religious leader does, it’s going to have some element of politics. Even if it’s being instructed by the state that all he can talk about is tell his flock to say his prayers and keep his nose out of everything else. That’s a political stance – because if he sticks to just that, then he will either be accused of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ propaganda and propping up the unjust regime by *not* speaking out on political matters and merely sticking to religion, or he’ll be accused of interfering in the secular marketplace where religion has no place merely by re-iterating the traditional teachings of the Church.

    Perhaps. But often the Church has been *very* involved in political matters, as, for example, the Vatican’s support of the fascist regime in Spain. One reason the Catholic Church is so unpopular in Spain right now is that people remember how Franco and the Church together oppressed the people.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Claude writes,

    The Roman Catholic Church is obviously making a concerted effort to sanitize its unsavory history of supporting the slave trade.

    This issue is worth debating, but not in the comments section. Commentators need to stick to my post, which dealt with Pope Benedict XVI and none of his predecessors. All other replies will be treated with extreme prejudice.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Way back to Claude’s first comment.

    Catholic politicians are free to vote however they wish. Fact.

    These same personalities are members of a voluntary association called a church. Fact.

    The leaders of this church are in charge of defining their mission and determining whose membership is in good standing, not the government. Fact.

    The politicians do not have to remain Catholics. They are free to leave and join a church that has doctrines consistent with their beliefs. Right?

    Why should the government have any business tell church leaders how to run their churches, when it comes to actions that affect the status of members?

    On this issue, the church-state separation stance is to avoid entanglement in the church’s membership issues.

    It’s a totally different thing than a pastor or a priest taking public endorsement stands. This is about the status of members and the Sacraments.

    Now, if you could show that bishops are attacking Democrats, but not Republicans, on these same doctrinal issues — apple for apple, not apples for oranges — then you could argue that this constitutes some kind of endorsement and the gov’t might need to take a look at it. I would still think that courts would say this is a doctrinal matter and out of legal bounds.

    Meanwhile, the press is free to cover all of this. But it helps to know that you are covering a church, not a government.

  • Dave

    Mark (#2) wrote:

    [The Pope] views politics in light of religion, not the other way around.

    Assuredly, and that’s an essential distinction. But the fact that his view leads him to intervene in the political process in ways Claude described in (#1) makes him a political activist. Where the MSM miss the boat is to cover him solely as a political activist. That’s a genuine GR issue.

  • Michael

    But it helps to know that you are covering a church, not a government.

    It’s more accurate to describe the Vatican as a church that often acts as a government or political actor.

    Every Sunday when I drive to church, I pass an Islamic Center, but a Vatican Embassy. The people in the Islamic Center are not provided the diplomatic credentials and privileges as the people in the Vatican’s embassy up the street.

    The Vatican has observer status at the UN. No other religious organization has such access to UN bureaucracy or input on UN activities, policies, or treaties.

    The Vatican’s influence on the political decisions in Africa, Latin America, and Asia far outstrips its position as a mere “church” and the Vatican’s power often influences how social policies are carried out throughout the Third World.

    Even in the U.S., the Vatican acts as more than just a “church,” but as a power player that influences policy and politics.

    So yes, it is a church. But it is also much more than that and is treated differently in the policy world than any other “church” in the world. That’s why an appearance in Australia is covered like a major press event, and not just another speech by the leader of another church.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MICHAEL:

    Correct. But the actions in question focus on the leaders of the church and people who have chosen to be voluntary members. The fight over the Sacraments may have public policy implications, but there is no way for the leaders to enforce the Church’s doctrines and laws without acting on the members — for the sake of their eternal souls, I might add, if one believes the doctrines of the Church that the members have voluntarily joined.

  • Julia

    One important point: US citizens who are Catholic do not have Vatican City passports. The Pope has no leverage over Catholics other than spiritual. The Evangelical coalition seems to have more influence in the US – although there is no sovereign “country” involved with Protestant Evangelicalism.

    The states of Monaco and Lichtenstein are each larger and wealthier than Vatican City. It’s more likely that the Pope’s influence is due to the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world and voluntary recognition of his personal moral authority and not because the Pope is a head of state. Of course, it is nice to be greeted by each country’s top echalon when you arrive in country. However, the Pope, because he is a head of state, has to be formally invited to visit a country and cannot take trips whenever and wherever he wants like Billy Graham could. Additionally, much of the time, that formal welcome is perfunctory and only diplomatically correct. Bush decided to give the Pope a grand welcome at the White House; I don’t think he’s getting that kind of treatment in Australia.

    The Pope has no vote at the UN. Vatican City has only observor status. NGOs probably have greater influence. I think there have been many folks who have addressed the UN who were not heads of state; and Benedict can’t just show up and expect to be heard without it being arranged ahead of time.

    There’s a misunderstanding here that is confusing influence and control. The only thing the Pope really controls, by treaty with Italy, is the running of Vatican City and some outposts in the Rome area, such as a few important basilicas and Castel Gondolpho. He has no way to enforce his will on Catholics outside of those areas. The most he can do is excommunicate people from their voluntary membership in the Catholic Church.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    I deleted two of Claude’s posts, one of which was lengthy. In fairness to him, I need to remind commentators to confine your replies to whether the AP story erred in implying that Pope XVI is a political activist in the general sense of the term: a non-politician whose main purpose is to determine political outcomes . All other replies — about the Vatican’s intervention in political history, about the Vatican’s political power — will be deleted.


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