Pope Benedict XVI’s annual address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See serves as a useful text for anyone who wants to understand the pontiff’s vision for the world.
Popularly known as the Pope’s “State of the World” address, it is both a retrospective look at world issues that have concerned him during the past year and a prospective look at how he believes such problems can be avoided or resolved.
Speaking on Monday to the assembled diplomats representing the 178 nations accredited to the Holy See, the Pope pinpointed six main global concerns in his speech: the environment, relativism, poverty, terrorism, disarmament, and religious freedom.
Concerns over environmental degradation ran throughout his speech. Since Benedict became Pope almost five years ago, safeguarding creation has been one of his foremost concerns, prompting many to label him the first "Green Pope" (although John Paul II was equally concerned).
Only a few days ago, Benedict XVI stressed in the Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace message on Jan. 1 that we must protect creation to cultivate peace.
He repeated that point frequently in this address.
“If we wish to build true peace, how can we separate or even set at odds the protection of the environment and the protection of human life, including the life of the unborn?” the Pope said. “It is in man’s respect for himself that his sense of responsibility for creation is shown.”
Without entering into specific debates over the science of global warming, the Pope expressed his disappointment at the lack of concrete results from the recent conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“I share the growing concern caused by economic and political resistance to combatting the degradation of the environment,” he said, adding that he hops future conferences will deal effectively with the issue.
But unlike the environmental movement, he sees today’s ecological problems stemming not simply from man’s selfishness and irresponsibility, but from an underlying cause: societies living as though God doesn’t exist and closed to the spiritual order.
“The denial of God distorts the freedom of the human person, yet it also devastates creation,” he warned.
And he stressed that protection of the environment is very much “a moral need,” expressing “a plan of love and truth” that comes from God.
The way forward, he believes, is to create what he called “a great program of education” aimed at promoting an “effective change of thinking and at creating new lifestyles.”
But he said such an attitude is thwarted by “hostility, if not scorn” directed toward religion and particularly Christianity in politics, culture, and the media.
“It is clear that, if relativism is considered an essential element of democracy, one risks viewing secularity solely in the sense of excluding or, more precisely, denying the social importance of religion,” he explained. “But such an approach creates confrontation and division, disturbs peace, harms human ecology and, by rejecting in principle approaches other than its own, finishes in a dead end.”
Carrying this reflection further but without explicitly referring to movements such as radical feminism and same-sex marriage, he warned that laws developed in the name of fighting discrimination “strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes.”
Freedom, he said, cannot be absolute, “since man is not himself God, but the image of God, God’s creation. For man, the path to be taken cannot be determined by caprice or wilfulness, but must rather correspond to the structure willed by the Creator.”
As the Pope often does, he appealed to both faith and reason, implicitly warning that one without the other ends up impoverishing man.
Elsewhere in his speech, he singled out for criticism increased arms spending, arms production, and nuclear proliferation. Turning to terrorism, he called on all armed groups to abandon the path of violence and open their hearts to peace.
Poverty also threatens peace and the environment, resulting in widespread migration, the Pope said, adding that it can be tackled with “justice, solidarity, and foresight.”
Meanwhile, he called for respect, security, and religious freedom, particularly for Christians in the Middle East and other places where they are being persecuted.
The Pope drew his speech to a close by highlighting the valuable nature of diplomacy, stressing that, in addition to solidarity, “the protection of creation also calls for concord and stability between states.”
As an example, he referred to a Vatican-brokered accord between Argentina and Chile, signed 25 years ago last year, that prevented the two nations from going to war over disputed islands, and which has allowed them to live in peace ever since.
Benedict XVI also cited other examples during the past year where diplomacy has been effective: a rapprochement between Colombia and Ecuador, an accord between Croatia and Slovenia, and another between Armenia and Turkey. Drawing on those examples, he expressed hope that diplomacy also would help achieve a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
But his closing words perhaps best summed up his vision and hope for the world: “I exhort every person of good will to work confidently and generously for the sake of human dignity and freedom. May the light and strength of Jesus help us to respect human ecology, in the knowledge that natural ecology will likewise benefit, since the book of nature is one and indivisible. In this way we will be able to build peace, today and for the sake of generations to come.”
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