Several of the numerous speeches given by Pope Benedict XVI, both in Rome and during his travels, could be categorised as “political speeches”. His famous address given to the German Parliament in Berlin (2011) naturally springs to mind. But one should not overlook his speeches given in cities such as Paris, London or Cotonou (Benin).
These discourses focus on central themes concerning the relationship between the Church and the world, such as the meaning of democracy, Christianity and inter-culturalism, legal positivism and natural law, and inter-religious dialogue, to mention but a few. Taken as a whole, these speeches serve as an important contribution to understanding the Church’s mission vis-à-vis the world of politics, and in the wider society, of the 21st century.
picture-alliance/ dpa | epa Justin Lane
Pope Benedict XVI was the third Pope to speak at the United Nations, after Paul VI and John Paul II.
In continuity with his predecessors on the See of St. Peter
Benedict XVI’s address to the general assembly of the United Nations (UN) in New York on 17thApril 2008 belongs without a shadow of doubt to the most important of these political speeches. This was in continuation with the addresses given by his predecessors Paul VI (1965) and John Paul II (1979, 1995). At the same time, Benedict’s speech shines as a defining moment in the history of the United Nations. Here is indeed food for thought – but certainly no “fast food”. Those who listen carefully and attentively, will discover three key points.
Food for thought – but not “fast food”
The first point to note is the principle of “responsibility of protection”. This entails the duty of each state to protect its people against breaches of human rights, but also to protect them from the consequences of humanitarian crises. If a state is unable to fullfil this responsibility of protection, then it will be the task of the international community to come to the aid of such a state – without trespassing unjustly on its sovereignty.
Rules that enable freedom
Hence the necessity of rules and structures which “in accordance with their nature are directed towards the common good and the defence of human freedom.” Closely related to this point is a second point – an important pillar of the thought of Benedict XVI: “Such rules do not restrict human freedom. On the contrary, they enable such freedom.” Thus the pope demonstrates again the importance of norms and rules to ensure the well-being of the individual, as well as the entire human family attending to its present tasks.
picture-alliance/ dpa | epa Jason Szenes
Among human rights, Benedict emphasized the right to freedom of religion.
The foundation of human rights
Intrinsically tied to this theme is that of human rights, whose formulation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) forms the immediate backdrop to the Pope’s speech. According to Benedict XVI, these fundamental human rights “have their basis in natural law, which is written into the heart of men, and made present in the various cultures and civilizations. To stand up for these rights would be “the best way of limiting inequality between countries and groups in society, as well as increasing the prospect of safety.”
Protection of Environment and Climate, Solidarity, and Freedom of Religion
In addition, according to Benedict XVI, the observation of human rights provides the motivation for engaging in the protection of environment and climate, for a commitment to solidarity with the so-called “Third World”, and for action in areas of conflict in the world. In this respect, the quest for diplomatic solutions should always take precedence over military action, even if such action is not excluded when undertaken “collectively in the name of the international community” and for the purpose of establishing peace in conflict zones.
Amongst human rights, Benedict XVI emphasises the right to freedom of religion. The proper understanding of this right cannot be restricted to free practice of religious worship in the private sphere. Furthermore, it is essential that the place of religion in the public sphere must be respected, so that the contribution of the faithful to the building up of society will be adequately considered.
How to understand a “healthy secularism”
The pope mentions in this context the necessity of a “healthy secularism”, which recognizes the autonomy of both state and Church. At the same time, such “healthy secularism” must adopt a constructive and positive attitude to both the state and the Church, acknowledging that the two spheres are engaged in the same service – the service of man.
A critical point in the thought of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is his warning against the weakening of human rights on the one hand, and their illegitimate expansion on the other.
The undermining of the protection of the human person
The Declaration of Human Rights succeeded in uniting “different cultures, juridical expressions and institutional models to converge around a fundamental nucleus of values, and hence of rights” in a common understanding of core values and give them a legal expression. Today, however, “simple interests, often particular interests” are instrumentalized to add further purported rights to the declaration. These rights, however – such as the frequently proclaimed “right to abortion” – are diametrically opposed to the protection of the human person.
picture-alliance/ dpa | epa Jason Szenes
Ban Ki-moon, General Secretary of the United Nations from 2007 to 2016, thanks Benedikt XVI for his address.
It follows that rights and laws cannot be separated from their ethical and rational dimension. This is the third crucial point of the address, to which the pope returns in his so-called Berlin speech. It is not a question of choosing “between ethic and science”, between morality and law; “rather it is a question of adopting a scientific method that is truly respectful of ethical imperatives.”
Neither scientific discoveries nor the sources of law can be established simply by a majority vote. All the ethical implications must always be borne in mind. To this end, Benedict XVI offers “a vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension”. This vision enables a “recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman” and leads to “a conversion of heart” towards justice and peace.
Freedom to bear witness to the light of the Gospel
Lastly, Benedict XIV’s exposition illuminates the personal life of faith, as well as the mission of the Church in the world. Both the individual faithful and the Church as a community are called in freedom to bear witness to the light of the Gospel and so to contribute to the building up of the Kingdom of God, which is already growing here on earth.
A standing ovation for the "bridge-builder" from Rome.
The author, Dr. Christoph Ohly, is Professor of Canon Law and Provisional Rector of the Faculty of Catholic Theology Cologne – St-Augustin (KHKT).