The pope as political activist

polypopeIs Pope Benedict XVI a political activist, an agitator for left-wing or right-wing issues? Rohan Sullivan of The Associated Press seems to think so. In his story about the Pope's opening address at World Youth Day, Sullivan portrayed Benedict in strictly political terms, focusing primarily on his remarks about the importance of protecting the environment:

The world's natural resources are being squandered in the pursuit of "insatiable consumption," Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday in a speech urging followers to care more for the environment and reconnect with the principle of peace.

Benedict, speaking to more than 200,000 pilgrims gathered for the Roman Catholic church's youth festival, expanded on a theme that has led him to be dubbed "the green pope."

The crowd, massed on a disused wharf in Australia's largest city, regularly erupted in cheers that gave the event the feel of a sporting event.

"Some of you come from island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising water levels; others from nations suffering the effects of devastating drought," the pope said, referring to global warming.

He noted that during his more than 20-hour flight from Rome to Sydney he had a bird's eye view of a vast swath of the world that inspired awe and introspection.

"Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world's mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption," he said.

It is true that Benedict stressed the importance of protecting the environment. It is also true that the Pope hit the environmental theme more in this address than any speeches he gave, say, during his visit this spring to the United States. So it's natural and right for Sullivan to play up this angle.

Yet like Padraig Collin's story for Irish Times, the rest of the AP story leaves a misleading impression: the Pope's address was primarily about the environment or his praise for the Australian government's apology to aborigines. It wasn't.

Of the speech's 24 paragraphs, 22 had little or nothing to do with the environment. These paragraphs were primarily theological and spiritual. Benedict warned of the dangers of relativism and secularism and extolled the virtues of Christian witness and charity. This should be no surprise. He is, after all, called His Holiness and Holy Father.

Not all of the stories about Benedict's opening address were off the mark. Ed Johnson of Bloomberg News focused on the spiritual and religious nature of the pope's remarks:

Pope Benedict XVI greeted tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered in Sydney for the largest youth festival in the world and declared the five-day celebration of faith a sign of the Catholic Church's vitality.

``Standing before me I see a vibrant image of the universal church,'' the 81-year-old pontiff told 140,000 pilgrims at Sydney Harbour's Barangaroo wharf today. ``The variety of nations and cultures from which you hail shows that indeed Christ's good news is for everyone.''

This post is not meant to be too scolding. I understand why Sullivan latched on to the environmental theme: it was news in a way that Benedict's remarks about relativism and secularism were not. But when reporters focus only on politics, as they did with Fr. Michael Pfleger, they make a categorical error.

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