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The grand tour

"The grand tour" Continued...

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

As is typical with papal discourse, the pope required his UN audience to read between the lines. Were communist nations the target when he said religious believers must never be forced to deny God? Was President Bush's foreign policy in mind when he lamented a "crisis" as "the decisions of a few" supplant "multilateral" and "collective action by the international community"? And did Benedict refer to radical Islam when he criticized terrorism and the denial of human rights in the name of "religious outlooks"? Islamism also went unspecified when Benedict prayed at Ground Zero ("God of peace, bring Your peace to our violent world").

His words at the White House were similarly generalized, carefully sidestepping suggestions of papal displeasure over Iraq or hints about America's raging political campaign. Instead, he praised America as a land of faith, religious liberty, and the inalienable rights he later championed at the UN. While in the United States the pope also avoided contentious specifics on illegal immigration, merely asking that immigrants be welcomed and families kept together.

At the White House Bush, a Methodist, echoed Catholic concepts, saying that when "some treat life as something to be debased and discarded," America needs the pope's defense of life and critique of moral relativism. In his final New York sermon, Benedict rejected the "false dichotomy between faith and political life."

The pope broke no new ground during warm-hearted encounters with Jews and other non-Christians. More intriguing was his warning, at a session with non-Catholic Christians that included evangelicals, against relegating religion entirely to subjective personal experience, minimizing the faith's objective truth and doctrinal content.

Till now Benedict has been barely known to non-Catholic Americans, while Catholics have seen him as John Paul's doctrinal "Rottweiler" who disciplined Catholic liberals and denounced secularism.

The Benedict that Americans observed is no rock star in the mold of his predecessor. But this first modern pontiff to be fluent in English (albeit with a heavy German accent) has a theological mind for all Christians to reckon with. And with his quiet spiritual demeanor, warm smile, and congenial words, Benedict softened his prior image. Jesuit James Martin wrote on a New York Times blog that he's one liberal priest who found himself "feeling real admiration-and even affection-for the pope whose election I once lamented."

Not a matter of taste

Of grave concern is the spread of a secularist ideology that undermines or even rejects transcendent truth. The very possibility of divine revelation, and therefore of Christian faith, is often placed into question by cultural trends widely present in academia, the mass media, and public debate. For these reasons, a faithful witness to the gospel is as urgent as ever. Christians are challenged to give a clear account of the hope that they hold (1 Peter 3:15). . . . [We must ask whether our witness] has not been attenuated by a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies, which, in alleging that science alone is "objective," relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling. . . . For Christians to accept this faulty line of reasoning would lead to the notion that there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes.

-Pope Benedict XVI in meeting with non-Catholic Christians

Richard N. Ostling
Richard N. Ostling

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