The Vatican’s Relative Truth

Pope Benedict XVI has offered a couple of recent previews of what’s likely to be his core message to the United Nations next April, the projected highlight of his first visit to the United States. Last Tuesday, the pontiff released the text of his annual statement for the Vatican’s World Day of Peace, raising typical papal concerns like poverty and disarmament, but also a defense of the family based on heterosexual marriage and, in the section reflecting Benedict’s budding environmentalism, a reminder of human supremacy over the animal kingdom.

Ten days earlier in Rome, Pope Benedict offered a more targeted message in a meeting with Catholic nongovernmental groups that work with the United Nations, delivering a stern warning against the “bitter fruits” of “relativistic logic” and a “refusal to admit the truth about man and his dignity.” Given the titanic battles the Vatican has waged against certain United Nations agencies over abortion and birth control, his comments were quickly spun by the Italian press as a major papal “attack” ahead of next year’s General Assembly address.

But if the pope’s words have fed expectations of a “High Noon”-style showdown, they are likely to be dashed. Benedict had no intention of making an anti-United Nations jeremiad. Like every pope since the birth of the United Nations in 1945, Benedict supports robust global governance, in a fashion that has long bewildered neoconservative critics of the United Nations in the United States and elsewhere. If there was anything remarkable in what he said, it’s only that the Vatican’s public-relations crew still hasn’t found a way to keep the pope from making cosmetic missteps that distract attention from his message.

While the Vatican may have its differences with United Nations agencies over sex, it also sees the organization as the lone realistic possibility for putting a human face on international politics and economics — what Pope John Paul II called a “globalization of solidarity.”

Moreover, Benedict undeniably has a point about relativism. From China to Iran to Zimbabwe, it’s common for authoritarian regimes to argue that rights like freedom of the press, religion and dissent represent Western — or even Anglo-American — traditions. If human rights are to be protected in a 21st century increasingly shaped by non-Western actors like China and the so-called Shiite axis from Lebanon to Central Asia, then a belief in objective truth grounded in universal human nature is critical. That’s hardly just a Catholic concern, but no one on the global scene is making the argument with the clarity of Benedict XVI.

Part of the problem is that so far, this cerebral pope has a track record of blurring such compelling arguments during his biggest turns on stage. When he visited Auschwitz in May 2006, for example, he offended some Jews by asserting that the Nazis tried to destroy Christianity too. Four months later, he set off a firestorm among Muslims with a lecture at the University of Regensburg by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman,” such as “his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” And in Brazil last May, the pope incensed indigenous people in Latin America by suggesting that Christianity was not imposed on them.

In each case, Benedict was actually trying to make a deeper point worth hearing. In Auschwitz, his contention was that objective truth grounded in God is the only bulwark against the blind will to power; his Regensburg address was devoted to reason and faith, arguing that reason shorn of faith becomes nihilism, while faith without reason ends in fanaticism and violence; and in Brazil, he argued that since Christ embraces all humanity, he cannot be foreign to anyone’s spiritual experience.

Those ideas, however, were overshadowed by a few throwaway phrases that betray a worrying insensitivity to how unfamiliar audiences are likely to hear what he says. One would think that by now the lesson would have been learned, but all evidence is to the contrary. While it was intended to strike a tone of sympathy and common human concern, the speech to the nongovernmental groups instead came off as a screed.

Benedict’s trip to the United Nations in April will be his most important voyage to date, and his best opportunity to address the community of nations. He clearly has something valuable to say, a message that focuses on what he has termed a “dictatorship of relativism” menacing not just the Catholic Church or institutional religion, but everyone, especially the most vulnerable. The question is whether he’ll be able to find a language to ensure that what he pitches is also what people catch.

At this stage, the odds that he’ll succeed seem, well, only relatively good.

John L. Allen Jr., the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and author of The Rise of Benedict XVI.