Benedict XVI’s Gospel to the United Nations

Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the United States
was a huge success. The eyes of America
were upon him, and most people liked what they saw — very much.
Benedict is not the trained actor and charismatic figure that Pope John Paul II was, but there is a fundamental decency that shows through to compliment his massive intelligence. Both the intelligence and the decency were on display throughout his trip.
Consider the pope’s speech to the General Assembly at the United Nations. The words were intended for diplomats, not popular consumption, so it was rather complex (and half of it was given in French), but there were very important messages with real consequences to be found in those words.
The pope opened his remarks by praising the founding principles of the UN, saying that they “express the just aspirations of the human spirit and constitute the ideals that should underpin international relations.” He then addressed the struggle to achieve world peace. He said when some are denied human rights, it creates a breeding ground for violence: “Indeed, the victims of hardship and despair, whose human dignity is violated with impunity, become easy prey to the call to violence, and they can then become violators of peace.”
For the pope, the dignity of all people is part of the “natural law,” which is written on the hearts of all people. Denial of natural law, especially replacing it with rules of human invention, is a dangerous mistake. When people do that, rights “could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks.” As he observed, the Golden Rule “cannot in any way vary according to the different understandings that have arisen in the world.”
Invoking the doctrines of subsidiarity and solidarity, the pope explained that the duty to care for others falls first to those closest to the situation. Thus, the family should handle matters that it can before turning to the community. Similarly, nations should face problems that they can handle before turning to international organizations. Benedict then, however, noted that the world community must take action when individual nations fail to protect their own people. That, of course, was a very meaningful message to UN diplomats, who are often sadly reluctant to intervene to protect the powerless.
Some commentators wanted to see the pope condemn President Bush for the military action in Iraq. They pointed to a passage where Benedict expressed disappointment that the world’s multilateral consensus is “still subjugated to the decisions of a few” and spoke of “giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest signs of dialogue or desire for reconciliation.” If this was intended as a slap at the Bush administration, it was certainly a mild one.
In fact, given that the audience was primarily comprised of international diplomats, it is just as reasonable to read the pope’s words as critical of the reluctance of the international community to intervene when it became necessary. He quite clearly gave his approval to international intervention in those cases where nations do not protect their citizens from “grave and sustained violations of human rights.” That is precisely what the Bush administration argued that the UN failed to do, and it was the reason given by the president for American intervention in Iraq.
Benedict returned to the theme of his 2006 talk at Regensburg University: the complementary nature of faith and reason. Of course, at that time the pope’s criticism of radical Islam’s rejection of reason received most of the attention in the press (driven in no small part by Islamic protests). At the UN, Benedict revisited the problem of “majority religious positions of an exclusive nature,” but he spoke longer about the “secular ideology” of the West. Using the environment as an example, he explained that scientific and technological progress had brought about many very good things, but it was not without the participation of the “Creator.”
This involvement of God or “the Creator” in science is all too sadly lacking in the modern Western world. The guarantee of religious freedom, said the pope, should properly be understood to embrace not only a private right to individual worship but also a right to affirm religious principles in public life. “It is inconceivable,” he said, “that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves — their faith — in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.” Yet, as Ben Stein’s new movie, Expelled, vividly reveals, Western intellectuals often feel the need to jettison faith when they think reason alone can provide the answer.
These and other points from the pope’s talk have profound implications for science and for world peace. They were not intended to be sound-bites on the evening news. Like every diplomat I spoke to (at least among those who take the pope seriously), I had to get a printed copy of the talk and devote some time to studying it. Diplomats, philosophers, and others with deeper insight than I possess will refer to this talk many times in the future, and each time will be a reflection of Benedict’s intellectual prowess.
If this had been Benedict’s only contribution from his trip, it would have been worthwhile. It would not, however, have brought about the outpouring of love that he experienced in the United States. That happened because there was something more: a kindness and decency that cannot be feigned. That side of the pope was also on display at the UN, in a talk that you probably don’t even know about.

The United Nations building is, of course, filled with diplomats. It also has secretaries, janitors, security guards, cooks, carpenters, electricians, locksmiths, plumbers, and even upholsterers. Many of these people have offices down in the second basement at UN Headquarters in New York. Without them, the diplomats could accomplish nothing.
After Benedict spoke, the General Assembly was dismissed. The diplomats all left the room. Then, in an event that I have not seen described or even heard mentioned, the workers at the UN were invited into the General Assembly room, and Benedict spoke to them.
This talk was not for future diplomatic uses. It was the pope talking to people, and he addressed them in beautiful and simple terms. He spoke of the important mission of the United Nations, and he likened everyone in the process to a family. He told them how much he appreciated their work and how it advanced the UN’s mission. Coming immediately on the heels of a very complex and philosophical talk, there was something so genuine and sweet about this completely unpublicized talk — it gave me great insight into the pope’s character. He has the brilliant mind of an intellectual giant and the warmth of a kindly old man down the street.
After this talk, I was privileged to stand in a reception line where I was able to look into the pope’s eyes and exchange a greeting. I saw up close the wise and kind eyes of our Catholic papa. I understand why America fell in love with him.

  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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