The Pew Form on Religion & Public Life had a great forum the other day for journalists preparing to cover the upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Washington, D.C., and New York City. The speakers were two of the world's top English-language Vatican watchers, John L. Allen, Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter and George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. If you have any interest in the pope and what he might have to say during this visit, you really need to check out the transcript. Here is one of the best quotes from that day, as we head into the final days of the "Oh my God, how will this papal visit shape the Catholic vote in the 2008 election" coverage. This is from Allen:
... (Look), Benedict XVI is not a superdelegate. He's not riding into the United States to deliver a long-sought endorsement to somebody. His spokespersons, both publicly and privately, have repeatedly said that he is not coming here to talk about the '08 elections. In fact, it's worth noting that the three previous papal addresses to the U.N. have all come in October because that's the period of the General Assembly's open debate. It's when heads of state typically address the U.N. Part of the reason he's not coming in October is because it's too close to November, and so there is a deliberate desire to try to keep him above the fray.
But, you say, "Get real."
This whole era in American politics revolves around moral and social issues, including the key issues at the U.S. Supreme Court -- abortion and the definition of marriage. The Catholic church has strong teachings on these issues. At the same time, it's social teachings are directly tied to other hot issues, from the death penalty to immigration, from the war in Iraq to health care. In other words, it is hard to fit the church's entire agenda into a Democratic Party social event in Hollywood, or into a corporate fundraiser for Republicans at your local country club.
However, the mainstream press is going to do what it's going to do. Politics is the true religion of most people who work in major newsrooms.
The Los Angeles Times offered a classic story of this kind the other day, one that really should have had a sub-headline that said: "Hey, we know this isn't why he's coming to America, but this is what everyone cares about." The actual headline read: "Pope's U.S. visit could have political ripples -- Though Benedict XVI isn't likely to talk about the presidential campaign, the candidates may seek to tap the influence he wields with Catholic voters."
I have to say, however, that the Times didn't water down Benedict's stands on the big-button issues. Here is a clear passage that is hard to miss:
Benedict and other Vatican conservatives have made it clear that Catholic politicians are bound by their faith to legislate against abortion, same-sex unions and other activities abhorrent to the church. In an apostolic exhortation released in February 2007, the pope called these issues "not negotiable."
"Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others. It demands a public witness to our faith," he said. "Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce and support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature."
Last May, when the pope traveled to Latin America, he said during a news conference aboard the papal aircraft that Mexican politicians who had just liberalized abortion laws in Mexico City had, in effect, excommunicated themselves.
Notice, however, that the pope is a mere "Vatican conservative," as opposed to an omnipresent news source -- perhaps from Georgetown University -- who is in everyone's cellphone speed dial list. The pope is not a superdelegate, but he is also not, well, the pope?
So what will the pope stress? Weigel and Allen were in remarkable agreement there. They think the key will be Benedict's desire to argue that there is such a thing as truth -- universal, eternal truth -- that can be known through reason and natural law and that this truth is linked to the defense of human rights and, to be specific, religious liberty. The pope, they said, will also go out of his way to praise the United States, which has a lively marketplace of ideas but has not embraced the icy post-Christian atmosphere of Europe.
I followed up with this question, during the forum:
The standard profile of Benedict always includes some phrase that his predecessor had a flair for the dramatic with his background as an actor, etc., and that somehow Benedict doesn't. Yet, that baptism the other night at Easter was a very dramatic scene. And now he's coming to the U.N. Do you expect the pope to specifically refer to the U.N. Charter and the right to convert?
I was talking, of course, about the high-profile baptism of journalist Magdi Allam, who is probably the most famous "moderate" Muslim in Italy. I went after that topic in my column this week for the Scripps Howard News Service. Click here if you want to see what Allen and Weigel had to say on the religious-liberty issue, which I, too, believe will dominate the visit. Here's a piece of that:
... (After) that symbolic Easter baptism, the pope may choose to underline a passage in the world agency's own Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," states Article 18. "This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private. ..."
Benedict knows that the United Nations is, throughout 2008, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said George Weigel. ... For the pope and Vatican diplomats, this document represents "a kind of moral constitution for the world," built on a "common moral consensus" that is under attack.
Any defense of human rights, stressed Weigel, requires the use of a "word that Benedict XVI has brought into the Vatican's inter-religious dialogue in a powerful way -- 'reciprocity.' If there is a great mosque in Rome welcomed by the leadership of the Catholic Church, why not a church in Saudi Arabia? If we recognize the freedom of others to change their religious location as conscience dictates, that needs to be recognized by dialogue partners as well."
Here's another question linked to that: If a Catholic converts to Islam in Italy, do they need to hire a bodyguard? If a Muslim converts to Catholicism in Pakistan, do they need to hire a bodyguard? Reciprocity.
Come to think of it, has Allam had to hire a bodyguard in Italy?
Watch carefully, and let us know if you see an early release of Benedict's UN speech text. I think that one will be under wraps until moments before he delivers it.