John Paul II, aside from his legacy as religious leader, is largely and correctly considered one of the political giants of the twentieth century. It is not too much to say that the Polish Pope, together with Ronald Reagan, changed the political history of half the world. Naturally his is successor is expected by many to have the same geopolitical influence on the world stage.
This is unfortunate and unfair. For if the world is still divided in 2009, as it was in 1978, between dark and light systems of governments and peoples, the scourge of the twenty-first century stems from a much less overtly political division. The dangers of Muslim extremism and perils of moral relativism demand a more subtle but no less tenacious approach.
Yesterday was the eighty-ninth anniversary of the encyclical issued by Pope Benedict XV, Pacem, Dei Munus Pulcherrimum, (On Peace and Christian Reconciliation, May 23, 1920). The 20th Century Pope Benedict, (one of the least remembered) was elected in September of 1914 and died in 1922. The First World War dominated his pontificate. As a consequence, he had important things to say about world peace. And although limited in scope, his work had a profound intellectual influence on the thoughts of the current Pontiff. The encyclical offers a compelling insight into the thoughts and actions of Benedict XVI.
It is widely accepted that a Pope chooses the name of a predecessor whose teachings and legacy he wishes to advance. Ratzinger's choice of "Benedict" was seen as a sign that Benedict XV's views on humanitarian diplomacy, and his stance against relativism and modernism, would be echoed during the reign of the new Pope.
In his first General Audience in St. Peter's Square on April 27, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to Benedict XV when explaining his choice: "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."
Written soon after the cataclysm of World War I, Benedict's encyclical anticipated and promoted the idea of a union of civilized nations dedicated to the preservation of peace, an authentic League of Nations, or United Nations, but very different from what eventually came to fruition. In practical terms it called for a restoration of Christendom of an earlier day with distinct nation states and principalities united under a common ontological understanding.
The slaughter in Europe from 1914 to 1918 proved not only a scandal to supposedly Christian nations but also led to the transformation of boundaries and the emergence of numerous new states such as Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Yugoslavia, Czeckslovakia, Finland, and others. The Church administration had to deal with the new international systems that had emerged, by right-wing nationalism and fascism and left-wing socialism and communism. To deal with these issues, Benedict engaged a large scale diplomatic offensive to secure the rights of the faithful in all countries.
The idea of collective security as a solution to international conflict has gone in and out of fashion over the last bloody century. Ententes, Alliances, Pacts, Treaties, and Hot and Cold Wars have thrown the subject into every light possible, appearing prophetically wise at certain times and incredulously foolish at others. But while hindsight is clear, the task at hand as petitioned in the encyclical was formidable and divinely inspired as a call to action
" ...It is much to be desired, Venerable Brethren, that all States, putting aside mutual suspicion, should unite in one league, or rather a sort of family of peoples, calculated both to maintain their own independence and safeguard the order of human society."
The Encyclical refers to the tradition of the City of God and City of Man as expounded by the great Doctors of the Church.
St. Augustine well says: "This celestial city, in its life here on earth, calls to itself citizens of every nation, and forms out of all the peoples one varied society; it is not harassed by differences in customs, laws and institutions, which serve to attainment or the maintenance of peace on earth; it neither rends nor destroys anything but rather guards all and adapts itself to all; however these things may vary among the nations, they are all directed to the same end of peace on earth as long as they do not hinder the exercise of religion, which teaches the worship of the true supreme God."
Benedict XVI has just completed a tour of the Holy Land, with all the predictable accompanying criticism and controversy. Pundits and observers of all persuasions reveal once again their misunderstanding of his goals and methods. The 2000 year-old Church does not bear in mind the last news cycle or consult the latest polls. Whether Benedict XVI evinced sufficient empathy for a given group or used the correct number of words and weight to a given subject is fodder for the daily press but really inconsequential in the scope of his responsibilities. To expect Benedict to react to the "crisis" of the day like an always-campaigning politician is to completely misconstrue his purpose, his mission and, not the least distinctive in this case, his temperament.
Despite relentless pressure, the points of doctrine and dogma are settled, and will not progress with the latest fashion. Benedict's world-view is informed by the Gospel message. The Church's mission remains the same: being in, but not of, the world, to spread the Good News and save immortal souls. All other goals remain secondary in importance.
The Church, born during the rein of Caesar Augustus and having seen every political system imaginable, recognizes that the source of evil and war resides not in systems and organizations but in the human heart.
Despite the ludicrous assumptions of much of the press, Ratzinger of Munich does not need a lecture on the evils of fascism. Without illusions, Benedict presents a consistent view of metaphysics engaged in life, a celestial realpolitick foreign to the modern mind but comprehensible to human nature. To both Benedict XV and Benedict XVI, the Church immutable is the Church at its best The Church triumphant. The world outside the Church benefits - politically, socially, morally, as a result.