Benedict XVI on Religion and Public Life

A Frequent Theme in First Months of His Pontificate

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ROME, SEPT. 17, 2005 ( Social and public life needs a religious element, insisted Benedict XVI during his weekly audience this Wednesday. “At the very center of social life there must be, therefore, a presence that evokes the mystery of the transcendent God,” he said. “God and man walk together in history.”

On numerous occasions Benedict XVI has spoken about the valuable contribution Christianity and religious believers can make to today’s society. During one of his early major addresses, on May 12 to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, the Pope declared that the Church would continue to “proclaim and defend fundamental human rights,” which are often violated in many countries.

Conscious of the clashes that sometimes take place where religion and politics interact, the Pontiff explained that in this activity the Church “asks for no privileges for herself, but only the legitimate conditions of freedom and action to fulfill her mission.” In turn, the Church will work to safeguard the dignity of every person and to work for the common good, he said.

On June 24, during his visit to Italian President Carlo Ciampi, the Pope dealt specifically with the theme of Church-state relations, defending the role of religion in a secular, modern state. “Christ is the Savior of the whole person, spirit and body, his spiritual and eternal destiny and his temporal and earthly life,” said the Holy Father. “Thus, when his message is heard, the civil community also becomes more responsible and attentive to the needs of the common good and shows greater solidarity with the poor, the abandoned and the marginalized.”

Quoting the Second Vatican Council constitution “Gaudium et Spes” (No. 76), Benedict XVI noted that both the Church and the state are autonomous and independent. Yet, they have in common an interest in the human person, albeit in different ways.

There is room, the Pope continued, for “a healthy secularism of the state.” This does not mean, however, that religion should be excluded from a valid role in ethical matters. The Holy Father told the Italian president that “the Church desires to maintain and to foster a cordial spirit of collaboration and understanding at the service of the spiritual and moral growth of the country.”

Any attempt to weaken the long-standing historical ties binding Christianity and today’s society would not only harm the Church, but would also be detrimental to Italy, the Pope warned.

Dangers of secularization

In a number of addresses to newly arrived ambassadors who present their credentials the Pope has returned to the theme of religion and the state. Speaking on June 16 to Geoffrey Kenyon Ward of New Zealand, the Pope mentioned the “disquieting process of secularization” taking place in many parts of the world.

“Where the Christian foundations of society risk being forgotten,” he said, “the task of preserving the transcendent dimension present in every culture and of strengthening the authentic exercise of individual freedom against relativism becomes increasingly difficult.”

Perhaps keeping in mind that New Zealand had recently given official recognition to same-sex unions, the Pope stressed the need “to recover a vision of the mutual relationship between civil law and moral law which, as well as being proposed by the Christian tradition, is also part of the patrimony of the great juridical traditions of humanity.” In this sense, he continued, we can see what should be the limits to claims to rights, which should be linked to the concepts of truth and authentic freedom.

And on Aug. 25, addressing Venezuela’s new ambassador, Iván Guillermo Rincón Urdaneta, the Pope noted the long-standing Catholic traditions in that nation, and its constant efforts to help the population.

No doubt aware of the bitter divisions in the country, as well as tensions between Church leaders and Venezuelan authorities, the Pontiff stressed that dialogue, respect, forgiveness and reconciliation are essential.

The Church, he observed, cannot desist from proclaiming and defending human dignity. “She asks to have constantly at her disposal the indispensable space and necessary means to carry out her mission and her humanizing service,” added the Holy Father.

Moreover, improving Church-state cooperation would enable both of them to render better service to the population. Benedict XVI also explained to the Venezuelan ambassador that the Church needs freedom to exercise her mission and to guide the faithful. In turn, the state should not fear the Church, for “in exercising her freedom she seeks only to carry out her religious mission and to contribute to the spiritual progress of each country.”

The following day, speaking to Guatemala’s new ambassador, Francisco Salazar Alvarado, the Pope encouraged the country’s population to develop a “true” democracy. That is, he said, one in which the nation is “inspired by the supreme and immutable values, which enables the cultural wealth of people and the gradual development of society to respond to the needs of human dignity.”

Benedict XVI also quoted from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” noting, “A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism” (No. 46).

Moral foundations

With priests and bishops, Benedict XVI has also dealt frequently with religion’s role in public life. In an address July 2 to Zimbabwean bishops who were visiting Rome, he noted the recent national elections in their country.

The Pope encouraged the bishops to provide “clear and united leadership.” He also noted the correctness of what they had expressed in a recent pastoral statement, in saying that “responsibility for the common good demands that all members of the body politic work together in laying firm moral and spiritual foundations for the future of the nation.”

On July 25, during an address to the clergy of the Diocese of Aosta, in northern Italy, the Pontiff commented on “the impression of so many that it is possible to live without the Church, which appears as a vestige of the past.”

He went on to explain that only through the help of moral values and strong convictions is true progress in building society possible. “If there is no moral force in souls, if there is no readiness to suffer for these values, a better world is not built; indeed, on the contrary, the world deteriorates every day, selfishness dominates and destroys all.”

This moral force, the Pope explained, must be rooted in love. “In the end, in fact, love alone enables us to live, and love is always also suffering: It matures in suffering and provides the strength to suffer for good without taking oneself into account at the actual moment.”

Benedict XVI was hopeful that awareness is growing of the importance of this truth, and he encouraged the priests to be patient in their task of communicating this message to people, and to continue an active dialogue with the secular world.

During his homily on Aug. 15, the solemnity of the Assumption, the Pope spoke of the need for God to be present in public life. This presence — for example, by means of the crosses that are present in many Italian public buildings — is important, “for only if God is present do we have an orientation, a common direction; otherwise, disputes become impossible to settle, for our common dignity is no longer recognized.”

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