Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Peace Pope

When Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict XVI last year, he invoked the memory of his predecessor, Benedict XV, who tried in vain to broker peace between the various parties during the first world war. In the current pope's words: "Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples." Looking back, Benedict XV seems a voice of reason in a frenzied world, especially when he opposed the ruinous Versailles terms that fueled the rise of the Nazis.

The pope is following through with his promise, and is proving to be a major voice for peace in the world. In this light, his message for the World Day of Peace (January 1, 2007) is illuminating. In his own unique voice, Benedict ties peace to the dignity of the human person, and the entire depth and breadth of Catholic social teaching (not only the parts that suit a particular ideology, but the whole of it). In particular, he has strong words for those who would denigrate human rights in the context of dealing with terrorism. I wonder who he is talking about?

Let's go through it, step by step. Benedict begins by noting the inherent God-given human dignity that demands respect:
"As one created in the image of God, each individual human being has the dignity of a person; he or she is not just something, but someone, capable of self-knowledge, self-possession, free self-giving and entering into communion with others."
Note immediately that, in my recent posts on torture, the starting point is the same: torture is wrong because it violates this God-given human dignity, and treats a person as a mere object. Or as Benedict says in the current context, the duty to respect the dignity of every human being means that "the person can not be disposed of at will". Moreover, "those with greater political, technical, or economic power may not use that power to violate the rights of others who are less fortunate." This is paramount. Benedict claims that, above all, this calls for respecting life and religious freedom. Only then can there be a true and authentic peace.

He then gives examples of the widespread disrespect for life today, appealing almost to a consistent "seamless garment" approach that transcends political ideology and labels:
"We must denounce its widespread violation in our society: alongside the victims of armed conflicts, terrorism and the different forms of violence, there are the silent deaths caused by hunger, abortion, experimentation on human embryos and euthanasia. How can we fail to see in all this an attack on peace?"
When it comes to religious freedom, he speaks of the "difficulties that both Christians and the followers of other religions frequently encounter in publicly and freely professing their religious convictions." He notes that some states impose a single religion on all, while others do not persecute but instill a "systematic denigration of religious beliefs". It is clear what Benedict is talking about here. Following from his controversial Regensburg lecture, he is again referring to both Islam and secular western democracy. The former must, as a basic principle of natural law, grant religious freedom and reciprocity, while the latter must respect the voice of religion in the public sphere. Repeating an earlier theme, he notes that "war in God's name is never acceptable". Can't get much clearer than that.

Many on the right will be applauding the pope at this point. But what he says following this may make some of them a little uneasy. For he states bluntly that the "many unjust inequalities" in the world are at the "origin of the many tensions that threaten peace". In his words:

"Particularly insidious among these are, on the one hand, inequality in access to essential goods like food, water, shelter, health; on the other hand, there are persistent inequalities between men and women in the exercise of basic human rights."
He draws special attention to the condition of women in society, condemning the tendency in some places to treat women as objects, and "the mindset persisting in some cultures, where women are still firmly subordinated to the arbitrary decisions of men, with grave consequences for their personal dignity and for the exercise of their fundamental freedoms." He also embraces environmentalism, noting that "disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence" and condemning the "destruction of the environment, its improper or selfish use, and the violent hoarding of the earth's resources". A sharp rebuke to many in the western word, particularly in the United States, who scoff at proposals to curb energy consumption. But this is all part of the gospel of peace.

In the crux of his message, Benedict is clearly challenging those who believe war is the answer to terrorism and other threats to peace, and who are swift to downplay economic and environmental concerns. In other words, terrorism cannot be addressed in any meaningful way without looking at the underlying inequities and violations of human dignity (this is in no way to condone or at least turn a blind eye to terrorist acts-- a fault of many on the secular left). It is simply staggering that the coterie of Catholic intellectuals (Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel etc.) that defended Bush's war policies took so blinkered a view of Catholic social teaching. But Benedict presents it in full glory, liberated from the trappings of secular ideology.

The final section deals with human rights, international organizations, and international law. If the right did not like what they've seen so far, they will be appalled by this part! For Benedict notes immediately a tension between absolute human rights and a "relativistic conception of the person". He raises the following question: "Can we wonder that, faced with the “inconvenient” demands posed by one right or another, someone will come along to question it or determine that it should be set aside?" This, of course, raises the specter of the Bush administration's gutting of the Geneva Conventions and legitimizing torture. Benedict is very clear. The United Nations is charged with protecting human rights, and the 1948 Universal Declaration embodies those rights, which are "not simply on the decisions of the assembly that approved them, but on man's very nature and his inalienable dignity as a person created by God." Tell that the the partisans on the American right who detest the UN (the most popular book in Fundie-land, the Left Behind series, sees the Antichrist as the UN Secretary General!).

In possibly the most powerful section of the whole letter, Benedict addresses recent wars and "new forms of violence" including terrorism. In this context, he notes that these new forms of violence:

"demand that the international community reaffirm international humanitarian law, and apply it to all present-day situations of armed conflict, including those not currently provided for by international law. Moreover, the scourge of terrorism demands a profound reflection on the ethical limits restricting the use of modern methods of guaranteeing internal security."
This is pretty clear. Some Catholics and others (nearly all based in the United States, and supporters of Bush's wars) have been attempting to modify traditional just war teaching in the name of "asymmetrical warfare" when armies don't simply face other armies on the battlefield, but must deal with terrorists possibly armed with weapons of mass destruction. Pope Benedict provides an emphatic rejection of this cynical viewpoint. We should be re-affirming, not changing, international humanitarian law in such circumstances. The universal moral law holds. That means no looser standard for war. That means no torture, irrespective of circumstance.

The pope also laments the fact that international humanitarian law has not been respected in recent times, and he draws attention to the Lebanese war this past summer. He states that "the duty to protect and help innocent victims and to avoid involving the civilian population was largely ignored". But again, the war party in America was baying for blood given that the enemy comprised "terrorists". In hindsight, the pope was right, just like Benedict XV was right in his own time: Israel's foolish and immoral attacks have only emboldened the political position of Hezbollah, threatening Lebanese democracy. I noted this at the time. War is rarely the answer, legitimate in only very special circumstances. And when war breaks out, based on jingoism and a desire for vengeance, and devoid of sober analysis, it can so easily lead to terrible consequences. Versailles. Lebanon. Iraq. And here we are. Listen to Benedict this time, please!

No comments: