The Audacity of Pope: Will the Pontiff's Call for Peace Faze the Warmongers?

Article excerpt

ON TUESDAY, April 15, a plane carrying Pope Benedict XVI will land at Andrews Air Force Base. Inside the aircraft, the pontiff, a quiet--some say shy--old man, will brace himself for perhaps the busiest and most important few days of his life.

It is obviously significant, at least symbolically, when the world's foremost religious leader makes a pilgrimage to the most powerful nation on the planet. For this pope, however, at this juncture of history, the trip could be especially momentous. Americans, their economy seemingly collapsing and their military hopelessly entangled in two unending and staggeringly expensive wars, might be particularly receptive to the philosophical insights of an outsider. At any rate, his arrival will offer a brief distraction from the endless media coverage of the presidential elections. For the Vatican, on the other hand, Pope Benedict's East Coast tour provides a unique opportunity for the Catholic Church to preach to the world.

April 16 will be Benedict's 81st birthday. That morning he will visit the White House--only the second time in history a pope has been to the presidential residence. In the afternoon, he will meet his 350 American bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Over the next four days, Benedict XVI will, among other scheduled appointments, preside over two Masses before huge congregations at stadiums in Washington and New York, tour the John Paul II Cultural Center, speak to 20,000 youths at a seminary, address the United Nations, mark the third anniversary of his election, and pay his respects at Ground Zero. No rest for the holy.

Such a full itinerary gives the pope many chances to make bold and challenging statements about the U.S. and its relationship with the rest of world. What then will Benedict say to America? It is well known, of course, that he has been a fierce and consistent opponent of the Iraq War from its beginning. Will he launch a broadside against the Bush administration's foreign policy? Catholic pundits think it unlikely, especially during a presidential election campaign. "I doubt he'll make many specific policy references, nor will he comment on the U.S. election," says Edward Pentin, Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. Certainly, Pope Benedict would not want to be seen as endorsing a particular candidate. Despite longstanding complaints about Catholicism muddling the roles of church and state, the Holy See does try--many would say unsuccessfully--to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's. Benedict XVI, however, is not one to cease from mental fight for the sake of political etiquette. In September 2006, he enraged many Muslims--to the glee of cheerleaders for the "clash of civilizations" everywhere--by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying that Islam was a violent and inhuman religion. He later apologized, though not for the speech itself, only for causing offense.

Many antiwar Catholics will be hoping that Benedict uses his visit to America to attack the other side of the perceived civilizational conflict. They want him, for instance, to remonstrate against mass consumerism, rampant free enterprise, and the neoconservative agenda for global democratic revolution.

They may not be disappointed. "From my conversations here with people," says Pentin, who has good contacts inside the Vatican, "it looks as though the pope is to focus on globalization and social issues." Benedict's speeches and homilies in Washington and New York are likely to reflect the themes of his forthcoming social encyclical, which is expected to be published on May 1. The document may touch on subjects that make many conservatives blush. It has long been rumored that the text will contain a landmark statement about global warming. Obviously references to the environment would be about man's role as steward of creation, rather than man's duty to worship trees. Still, this is hardly what one would have expected three years ago from the world's best-known traditionalist Catholic. …