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Benedict XVI, The Peace Pope

When, upon his election as Pope in April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took the name Benedict XVI, it was hard to ignore the cheering of many influential conservative Catholics. The name, obviously, honored St. Benedict of Nursia—the man who founded European monasticism and sparked Europe’s recovery from barbarism after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It seemed to signal that a new, tough Pope would be sharply critical of Europe for having neglected its Christian heritage, and its embracing moral relativism, in contrast to the religious and moral vigor of the United States.

But from the beginning, it was impossible to ignore another, unspoken theme: War.

It was no secret that Catholic “hawks” in the United States had been unhappy with Pope John Paul II’s stance against almost all wars. They considered his position unrealistic, and a departure from their interpretation of the classic “just war” tradition that began with St. Augustine. For them, the figure of St. Benedict became a symbol, and the Pope’s name a sort of code, for those who believed they saw most clearly the threat of “Islamo-fascism” and the need to use violence in the so-called clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. They clearly hoped that Benedict XVI—in contrast to his predecessor—would look more favorably on the United States’ use of armed force in the fight against terrorists and rogue states.

But with the Vatican reaction to the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the Catholic Hawks discovered they were only half right about the new Pope.

While Benedict XVI has indeed been firm in calling Europe back to its Christian roots, and warning against a “dictatorship of relativism,” any speculation that he would diverge from John Paul II’s views on war and peace ended when the Holy Father came out strongly against Israel’s pre-emptive attack on Lebanon.

Why did Catholic hawks misread the Pope so badly on the issue of war? One reason is that they had overlooked, or chosen to ignore, the Holy Father’s clear and repeated references to another inspiring Benedict — Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922).

In his first General Audience on April 27, 2005, in St. Peter’s Square, it was significant that the Pope chose to explain his decision this way: “Filled with sentiments of awe and thanksgiving, I wish to speak of why I chose the name Benedict. 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.”

And in his message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, on Jan. 1, 2006, the Holy Father cited Pope Benedict XV, “who condemned the First World War as a ‘useless slaughter’ and worked for a universal acknowledgment of the lofty demands of peace.”

Why did Catholic hawks downplay these strong references to Benedict XV? Was it because of that Pope’s anti-war position? Was it a deliberate attempt to spin the issue in the media? Or was it a case of subconscious filtering of disagreeable information based on hopes for a more pro-war Pope?

Whatever the case, the significance of Pope Benedict XV for the new Pope is now unmistakably clear.

Who was Pope Benedict XV?

Known as the “peace Pope,” he was elected soon after the outbreak of the First World War and spent the war years desperately trying to broker a peace settlement. On Aug. 1, 1917, he delivered his “Plea for Peace,” proposing that the warring nations cease hostilities, reduce their arms, guarantee freedom of the seas, and submit to international arbitration.

Although his efforts had gained some popular support, he was viewed with suspicion by the governments of both sides, and his proposals were rejected. Historians consider him a tragic figure, especially since most view World War I as a senseless bloodbath that did much to discredit western civilization for subsequent generations of Europeans, and paved the way for even greater horrors in the next world war.

A similar sense of tragedy, albeit on a smaller scale, seemed to surround Pope Benedict XVI during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict.

The Holy Father’s increasingly urgent pleas for an immediate cease-fire, and his pronouncements about the plight of innocent civilians in Lebanon and Israel, were almost completely ignored by Israel, the United States, and other western nations, and were mostly dismissed, even ridiculed, by influential Catholic hawks in the press and on the internet.

On July 16, a few days after the conflict began, in his first public statement, the Pope called on both Israel and Hezbollah to end hostilities, stating that “neither the terrorist acts nor the reprisals, above all when there are tragic consequences for the civilian population, can be justified.”

On July 20th, with 300 already killed and a half million displaced in Lebanon by Israel’s invasion, and 29 killed and many thousands displaced in Israel by Hezbollah rockets, the Pope and his representatives again denounced the conflict, and called for an “immediate ceasefire.”

On July 30th, after an Israeli air strike on an apartment block in the biblical town of Qana killed 28, including many children, the Pope pleaded “In the name of God, I call to all those responsible for the cycle of violence to lay down their arms – both sides, and bring a halt to the violence… You cannot re-establish justice, establish a new order and build authentic peace when you resort to instruments of violence.”

Then, during a television interview with German media taped on August 5th, the Pope made an unusual appeal. “Naturally, the Holy See has no desire for political power,” the Pope said. “But we wish to call Christians — and all those who feel challenged by the voice of the Holy See in one way or another — to mobilize all the powers that recognize how war is the worst solution for everyone.”

By Sunday, August 6, the Holy Father showed signs of frustration, when, during a public audience, he expressed his “bitter consternation that thus far, the pleas for an immediate ceasefire in this martyred region have been ignored.”

In every public appearance thereafter, Pope Benedict continued to condemn the killing of innocent civilians in both Israel and Lebanon, called urgently for the fighting to stop, and instructed Catholics to pray for a lasting peace, until finally a ceasefire was negotiated that began on August 14th.

Caught off guard throughout the conflict by this Pope’s echoing of John Paul II’s anti-war stand, conservative Catholic writers and bloggers expressed varying degrees of shock and disappointment with the new Pontiff and his Vatican representatives, especially for, in their view, treating Israel and Hezbollah as morally equivalent, and not giving sufficient weight to the threat of Islamic terrorism.

U.S. Hawks Circle Benedict

It began with the July 31st edition of the Weekly Standard — the same issue in which editor William Kristol called for a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear capability.

In that issue Joseph Bottum, the Catholic editor of the influential journal, First Things, wrote an article attacking the Vatican’s “stale” Middle East policy, which he caricatured as “everybody’s wrong, but Israel most of all.”

But Bottum got to the real issue when he charged that, since Vatican II, “a kind of functional pacifism gradually took hold among Roman theologians, as the traditional canons of Catholic just-war theory were ratcheted up to a standard impossible for any military action to meet.”

Later, on Aug. 1, on the First Things blog (where Bottum reiterated the points made in his article), Robert T. Miller criticized the Pope’s call for a ceasefire. “Whether, in any particular conflict, an immediate ceasefire ultimately promotes justice and peace,” wrote Miller, “is, in important part, an empirical question on which popes are not well-qualified to pronounce.”

These concerns reached a climax on August 10, the day of the failed London terrorist plot to blow up airliners.

On that day, Catholic blogger Amy Welborn — not a hawk, but writing, she said, on behalf of faithful American Catholics “in the middle” who take the Pope’s application of Church teaching “seriously” — questioned whether the Pope’s statements showed “a sort of distance from the reality raging around us. There is no direct engagement with the fundamental issues: the commitment to cripple the West and impose the radical, fundamentalist Islamist ideal in its stead. A total contempt for freedom and the intrinsic value of human life. And the determination and will to do this, by any means necessary.”

Columnist Rod Dreher, blogging for Beliefnet, seized on Welborn’s concern to criticize the Pope for “ignoring a rather large elephant in the room: the specific nature of the threat — that is, radical Islam and its agenda.”

And on Aug. 16th, Robert T. Miller chimed in again, taking issue this time with the Pope’s overarching statement that war is never a good solution. Citing World War II as the prototypical good, or just, war, Miller said:

“As it stands, this statement from Benedict is unsupportable. All serious people know that war is a terrible reality to be avoided whenever possible, and Benedict should certainly say this. But he is also a great theologian, well able to make moral distinctions. He ought not make statements that can so easily be understood as endorsing a dangerously naive pacifism that is incompatible with the Catholic moral tradition.”

What accounts for the large degree of misunderstanding between so many conservative American Catholics—hawks or otherwise—and papal pronouncements about war?

Is the Pope underestimating the threats posed to Israel by Hezbollah, and to the United States and the world by Islamic terrorists and fundamentalists bent on violent jihad?

And is the Pope’s position—a “presumption against war” similar to the views of Pope John Paul II—an innovation that is outside the mainstream of Catholic moral tradition?

History suggests an answer to all three questions:

First, Pope Benedict XVI’s views on war — why they occur, what their effects are, why they should be avoided, and how conflicts should be resolved — are echoes of consistent papal teaching reaching back to Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century.

Listen to papal statements in response to the wars of the past hundred years, and you’ll hear not only the laments of Benedict XV, but also Pius XI warning that, without reconciliation, World War I would lead to worse disaster. He insisted that “peace does not consist merely in a hard inflexible justice. It must be made acceptable and easy by being compounded almost equally of charity and a sincere desire for reconciliation.” (On the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ, December, 1922). He cited St. Thomas Aquinas in explaining that “a true and lasting peace is more a matter of love than of justice… [I]t is the function of justice merely to do away with obstacles to peace, as for example, the injury done or the damage caused. Peace itself, however, is an act and results only from love.” ( Summa Theologica , II-II, Q. 29 Art. 3, Ad. III)

Next, consider Pope Pius XII, whose alleged “silence” about Nazi evil during World War II was, upon close reading of his speeches, clearly a refusal to put the Church on the side of the indiscriminate violence committed by both sides, and a desire to preserve the Church’s witness…

“…to the countless dead who lie buried on the field of battle… the innumerable sorrowing host of mothers, widows and orphans who have seen the light, the solace and the support of their lives wrenched from them… those numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: “Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers.” … to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline…. to the many thousands of non-combatants, women, children, sick and aged, from whom aerial warfare—whose horrors we have from the beginning frequently denounced—has without discrimination or through inadequate precautions, taken life, goods, health, home, charitable refuge, or house of prayer…. to the flood of tears and bitterness, to the accumulation of sorrow and suffering, emanating from the murderous ruin of the dreadful conflict and crying to Heaven to send down the Holy Spirit to liberate the world from the inundation of violence and terror.” (Christmas Message of 1942)

In 1950, at the start of the Cold War, in an encyclical entitled “On the Crusade of Prayer for Peace,” he urged the world to remember what even just wars were like—“Nothing but ruin, death and every sort of misery.” He went on to make a statement as seemingly utopian as any issued by Popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI, which deserves to be quoted at length:

“It is necessary first of all to renew the hearts of men, to repress covetousness and greed, to allay hatreds, to really put into practice the norms and dealings of justice, to bring about a better distribution of wealth, to foster mutual charity and to stir up virtue in all.

There is nothing which can conduce more effectively and contribute more to the attainment of this great objective than the Christian religion; for its divine precepts teach us that men, as brothers, form one family whose Father is God, of which Christ is the Redeemer and by His heavenly grace the nourisher, and whose lasting homeland is Heaven.

If these precepts were really and duly put into effect, then without any doubt no wars, sedition, strife or suppression of civil or religious liberty would disturb public and private life, but a peaceful stability, founded on right order and justice, would possess the minds and souls of men and would open up a safe path to the attainment of a daily growing measure of prosperity.

This is indeed a difficult but necessary task. And if necessary it can brook no delay, but should be put into effect as soon as possible. If it is difficult and beyond human capacity, then we must have recourse in prayer and supplication to the heavenly Father, as down through the centuries in times of crisis our forefathers have done with happy and salutary results.”

The next Pope—John XXIII—issued an important encyclical in 1963, at the height of the Cold War—entitled “Pacem In Terris” (Peace on Earth), where he called on the world’s nations to end the arms race, and “banish the fear and anxious expectation of war with which men are oppressed.”

“In the first place, it is an objective demanded by reason. There can be, or at least there should be, no doubt that relations between states, as between individuals, should be regulated not by the force of arms but by the light of reason, by the rule, that is, of truth, of justice and of active and sincere cooperation.

Secondly, We say that it is an objective earnestly to be desired in itself. Is there anyone who does not ardently yearn to see dangers of war banished, to see peace preserved and daily more firmly established?”

Pope John XXIII is also known for his encyclical on social justice, “Mater et Magistra,” where he said that “violence is the source of the very greatest evils.” That encyclical elicited the famous rebuke to Catholic social teaching from conservative publisher William F. Buckley—Mater, si, Magistra, no, (or Mother, yes, Teacher, no), which began the modern American split between American conservatives and the Vatican on questions of justice and peace.

Opposition to war continued with Pope Paul VI, who established the World Day of Peace in 1968 and declared “No more war, war never again,” in an address to the United Nations. He issued perhaps the strongest appeal for peace ever made by a pope, his 1976 “The Real Weapons of Peace,” where he pronounced:

“It is no longer a simple, ingenuous and dangerous utopia. It is the new Law of mankind which goes forward, and which arms Peace with a formidable principle: ‘You are all brethren’ (Mt 23:8). If the consciousness of universal brotherhood truly penetrates into the hearts of men, will they still need to arm themselves to the point of becoming blind and fanatic killers of their brethren who in themselves are innocent, and of perpetrating, as a contribution to Peace, butchery of untold magnitude, as at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945?…

…The Lord makes statements, as we know, which appear paradoxical. Let it not be distasteful to us to rediscover in the Gospel the rules for a Peace which we could describe as self-abnegating! Let us recall, for example: ‘If a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well’ (Mt 5: 40). And then that prohibition of revenge-does it not undermine Peace? Indeed, does it not aggravate, rather than defend, the position of the injured party? ‘If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well’ (Mt 5:40). So there are to be no reprisals, no vendettas (and these are all the more wrong if they are committed to prevent injuries not yet received!). How many times in the Gospel is forgiveness recommended to us, not as an act of cowardly weakness, nor as a surrender in the face of injustice, but as a sing of fraternal love, which is laid down as a condition for us to obtain God’s forgiveness, which we need and which is a far more generous forgiveness! (cf. Mt 18: 23 ff., 5: 44; Mk 11: 25; Lk 6: 37; Rom 12: 14, etc.).

Let us remember the pledge we give to be forgiving and to pardon when we invoke God’s forgiveness in the ‘Our Father’. We ourselves lay down the condition and the extent of the mercy we ask for when we say: ‘And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us’ (Mt 6:12). For us also therefore, who are disciples of the school of Christ, this is a lesson to be meditated on still more and to be applied with confident courage. Peace expresses itself only in peace, a peace which is not separate from the demands of justice but which is fostered by personal sacrifice, clemency, mercy and love. “(Message of his Holiness Pope Paul VI for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, January 1, 1976)

Finally, there is Pope John Paul II, who echoed Paul VI’s call for an end to war, declared that “war is always a defeat for humanity,” and confounded his conservative allies with his lonely stand against the first Gulf War in 1991, and then the Iraq War in 2003.

All of these Popes were prophetic then, as they are now — but the world wouldn’t listen then, just as it refuses to now.

Which brings us to Pope Benedict XVI. While serving under Pope John Paul II, then Cardinal Ratzinger made several strong statements that left no doubt where he stood on the issue of war. In an interview with Zenit on May 2, 2003, he said:

“There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war.'”

On another occasion, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the argument that because of modern weapons of mass destruction, it might sometimes be necessary to make pre-emptive attacks on rogue states. “All I can do,” said Cardinal Ratzinger, “is invite you to read the Catechism, and the conclusion seems obvious to me… the concept of preventive war does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

It’s not surprising then, that during Pope Benedict’s August 5th television interview on German television, he would have said: “War doesn’t bring any good for anybody, not even for the apparent victors. We know that well in Europe, following two World Wars.”

Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI directly experienced World War II, the bloodiest war in the most savage century in human history. For these men, death and destruction are not abstractions, they are a reality that removes any sense of the “romance” of war that often creeps into pro-war rhetoric.

But as important as their personal experiences were, Catholic moral teaching carries even greater weight, and it clearly indicates that the “presumption against violence” attributed to John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI, is not an innovation, but is grounded in the clear witness of a continuous succession of modern Popes.

They are prophetic now, as they were then— but the world wouldn’t listen then, just as it refuses to now.

But what about Welborn’s point? What about modern realities of Islamic fundamentalist violence?

Benedict Condemns Violence … by terrorists and their enemies

Pope Benedict had shared his ideas about faith and violence long before he spoke at the University of Regensburg. That’s the Sept. 12 speech where he quoted a 14 th century emperor’s words about Mohammed — words that, seven centuries after they were first spoken, caused Muslims to riot.

But in that speech, when Pope Benedict said, “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul,” he wasn’t just talking about terrorism. He was also talking about the response to terrorism.

He said so himself in one of the best explanations of his view of terrorism. It’s the essay, “Searching for Peace: Tensions and Dangers,” which he wrote when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It’s published in the collection entitled Values In a Time of Upheaval(Ignatius Press, 2006).

“Let us begin by noting some basic truths. It is impossible to overcome terrorism, illegal violence detached from morality, by force alone,” he wrote. “It is indeed true that the defense of the rule of law against those who seek to destroy it must sometimes employ violence. The element of force must be precisely calculated, and its goal must be the protection of the law. An absolute pacifism that refused to grant the law any effective means for its enforcement would be a capitulation to injustice.”

Clearly, Cardinal Ratzinger is not a pacifist. However, he continued: “[I]n order that the force employed by law not itself become unjust, it must submit to strict criteria that are recognizable by all. It must pay heed to the causes of terrorism, which often has its source in injustices against which no effective action is taken. This is why the system of law must endeavor to use all available means to clear up any situations of injustice.”

And, furthermore, he wrote:

“Above all, it is important to contribute a measure of forgiveness, in order to break the cycle of violence. Where the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ is applied without pity, it is impossible to escape the power of that cycle. Gestures of a humanity that breaks through it by seeking the human person in one’s foe and appealing to his humanity are necessary, even where they seem at first glance to be a waste of time.”

Pope Benedict’s point about “root causes” is hard for us to hear, because we have heard it used too often as a rationalization. But it was a constant theme of Pope John Paul II.

At an Ash Wednesday Mass in 2003, John Paul II said: “There will be no peace on earth while the oppression of peoples, injustices and economic imbalances, which still exist, endure.” These statements were always balanced by clear condemnations of terrorism, put in a proper context. For example, in his Easter Sunday message of 2003, John Paul II said “Let there be an end to the chain of hatred and terrorism which threatens the orderly development of the human family.”

Cardinal Ratzinger also set his sights on this chain of hatred in his remarks on the anniversary of the Normandy invasion, June 6, 2004:

“After the First World War, the enmity and bitterness remained alive between the warring nations, especially between Germany and France, poisoning people’s souls. The Treaty of Versailles deliberately set out to humiliate Germany, imposing burdens that radicalized people and thereby opened the door to Hitler’s dictatorship … An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth — we have sent that this principle does not lead to peace.”

It’s this chain of enmity and bitterness that Pope Benedict XVI says he wants to break in the relations of Muslims and Christians. At his general audience a week after his Regensburg speech, he said:

“I hope that my profound respect for world religions and for Muslims, who ‘worship the one God’ and with whom we ‘promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values for the benefit of all humanity’ (“Nostra Aetate”, 3), is clear. Let us continue the dialogue both between religions and between modern reason and the Christian faith.”

Left to our own devices, we human beings tend toward unforgiveness and hatred. This tendency is so strong in us, that it seems naïve at best and foolhardy at worst to speak as the Pope does about dialogue.

This is because faith and hope, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, are easy to speak about in dreams, but difficult to actually live.  As Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete said,  “The mission of the Church in the world is to hold on to the possibilities opened up by grace, to educate all in living as witnesses to the Peace that the world cannot achieve by itself — neither through diplomacy nor through war, however just.”

It’s no surprise that Christian hope is a scandal to the world — or that forgiveness, the one solution that works, is scorned by secular leaders. Nor is it a surprise to see it within the Church itself. The current conflict between Catholic hawks and the Pope is not a new phenomenon, but one that occurred throughout the 20th century.

It’s not hard to see in Benedict’s warnings about religious fundamentalism that they apply not only to Muslims, but also to Americans who too closely associate their national goals with the will of God, a problem that is less prevalent among Catholics than it is for some on the Christian Right, especially those “Christian Zionists” (as Legionary Father Andrew McNair described here last week) whose views on the Middle East are based on distorted interpretations of Scripture.

“A partisan image of God,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, “which identifies the absoluteness of Godwith one’s own community or its interests, thereby elevating something empirical and relative to a state of absoluteness, dissolves law and morality. The good now becomes whatever helps maintain ones own power; the real distinction between good and evil disintegrates.”

Those words are primarily aimed at the “terrorists’ ideology of martyrdom.” But they can speak to any religious partisan — or to secularists.

Cardinal Ratzinger applied his critique to the modern secular state when he pointed to “destructive pathologies of reason” in the West. “Was not the atomic bomb,” he wrote, “already a transgression of boundaries [through which] reason sought its strength in the ability to destroy?” Radical secularism holds that “if it helps the construction of the future world of reason, it can on occasion be ‘good’ to kill innocent persons, which in any case no longer possesses an absolute dignity.”

He summed it up nicely by saying: “A sick reason and a misused religion lead in the end to the same outcome.”

In his summer television interview for German television, Pope Benedict traced seemingly unrelated transgressions against life back to a common cause — the loss of the proper sense of God — warning that “if we only teach know-how, if we only teach how to build and to use machines, and how to use contraceptives, then we shouldn’t be surprised when we find ourselves facing wars and AIDS epidemics.”

All of which brings us back to the point we started from: Pope Benedict XVI really does feel a close affinity with Pope Benedict XV, the original “peace Pope.”It’s ironic that Pope Benedict’s trip to Turkey now lies under a cloud of threat and worry. The Turks, a non-Catholic, non-Christian people, erected a statue of the previous Benedict in Istanbul. The likeness has a plaque underneath it, inscribed “Pope Benedict XV: The great Pope of the world tragedy … the benefactor of all people, irrespective of nationality or religion.”

First published in the National Catholic Register in three parts in 2006.

Angelo Matera is editor of Godspy.com.