National Catholic Register


Benedict Condemns Violence

... by terrorists and their enemies


October 1-7, 2006 Issue | Posted 9/27/06 at 10:00 AM


(This is the last of a three-part series examining Pope Benedict XVI’s thinking on war and terrorism.)

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 14th-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:

“In 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 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 said, “Let there be an end to the chain of hatred and terrorism that 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 seen 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. He scheduled a meeting with Muslims and, 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, No. 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 evangelical Christians, 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 God with 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 one’s 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 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 possess 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.”

Angelo Matera is editor of