The Holy See
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Pope Benedict XVI
Preacher and Prophet to the Nations

Address of Cardinal William Levada

Saturday, April 27, 2008
Brisbane Arts Center

It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be with you this evening, and to celebrate in these days the beautiful rites of blessing of the new chapel and buildings of Holy Spirit Seminary here in the Archdiocese of Brisbane. I am sure the new seminary is a cause for great joy and pride, and I offer to His Grace, Archbishop Bathersby, and the whole Catholic community in Queensland, my warmest congratulations on this happy event.

One week ago, I had the great privilege of joining our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, on his greatly successful Apostolic Visit to the United States during which he also addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. I must tell you, I found the image of the Pope standing before the United Nations speaking to the nations of the world was a very moving experience. It captured in a snapshot one of the essential roles of the modern papacy. We are all familiar with the Pope as our Holy Father, the spiritual leader of the universal Church. Here we see the Pope as a preacher and prophet to the nations. I would like to unfold this image with you this evening, beginning with a reflection on the interplay between faith and reason as the background and context for the Pope’s message to contemporary society. From this perspective, we can then better understand his remarks to the United Nations.

Faith, Reason, and Human Society

In his address at the University of Regensburg in September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI directly took up the theme of the relationship between faith and reason, perhaps most famously applying it to the dialogue with Islam. In that address, the Holy Father touched upon the modern tendency to see faith and reason as completely separate and distinct, warning that such a stark division would ultimately fail to engage contemporary culture. The Pope told his Regensburg audience: “In the Western world, it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet, the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”[1]

Today, not a few people (I think, for example, of Richard Dawkins, the atheist author of the best-selling book The God Delusion) either challenge the validity of knowledge that comes from faith or desire to relegate religious truth to the private sphere. In such a view, religious principles or truths would have no role in the public square: in political debate, in the creation or interpretation of laws, in the administration of social services, or in the formation of ethical education in our schools. As the Holy Father warned in Regensburg, if reason and science exclude a priori any reference to God, “then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by ‘science’, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.”[2]

This conception of a division between faith and reason as we see it in our contemporary society arises largely out of a culture infused with one of the underlying principles of modernity – the ambitious claim of human reason to understand everything, and thus have no need for faith or religion. This “Enlightenment” – at least as seen in its more radical manifestations – placed a priority on human reason, so that through the new scientific, economic, and political world view human beings might make progress toward an always better future, might be masters of their own future, might no longer be dependent on kings or even on God, but would truly be “free.”

No doubt the Enlightenment and its view of progress was marked by important contributions to the development of civilization: think of the concepts of religious liberty and political democracy that developed in this period. But its excesses left a heavy burden on society: think of the excesses of the French Revolution and of the utopian but violent ideologies of Marxism and Nazism.

Not surprisingly, just as modernity at times has tended to view faith as an obstacle to progress, so too the reaction of the Church has sometimes seemed to mistrust reason and science, viewing them not as a contribution to human progress, but as an attack on the essential content of religious truth or as an attack on the institution of the Church itself. As this tension was translated into the political sphere, one may begin to understand the Church’s historical resistance to the establishment of religious liberty as a point of law, seeing it as a veiled attempt to exclude a religious voice from the exercise of government and public policy. This resistance was only definitively overcome by the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

Of course, the story of the Church’s discussion of the relationship between faith and reason does not begin with the Enlightenment. From its inception, Christianity has been in dialogue with the prevailing philosophies and cultures of the world, seeing in them not obstacles to the proclamation of the Gospel, but rather as tools for its own greater understanding of, and indeed as important elements in accomplishing its mission of Evangelization. In this sense, the first disciples had to “translate” their experiences of the risen Lord Jesus into a language which would speak to the hearts and minds of those formed in the best traditions of Greek and Roman culture. Human reason had already prepared the way, in that one can already find at that point in human history a dissatisfaction with the belief in a pantheon of gods or in the arbitrariness of human subjection to divine whim. Christianity, in this context, fulfills the aspirations of Greek philosophy in that those coming out of the Greco-Roman culture found the Christian faith reasonable.

Throughout the centuries, Christian theologians and pastors have presented the Church’s faith as something consonant with human reason, as the revelation of God’s true purpose for creation and therefore as a complement to the intellect and the fulfillment of human reason. Indeed, certain figures in the Church’s history have made just such an exposition their life’s work: think of, for example, St. Ireneaus, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, the whole history of the Church’s theology highlights the importance of human reason in the fides quaerens intellectum—faith which uses rational inquiry to achieve a deeper understanding of revelation. Pope Benedict XVI stands in this same line when he attempts to heal the rift between faith and reason intensified in the wake of the Enlightenment. In his view, both faith and reason form the necessary framework for dialogue in our contemporary culture in the face of the many challenges that confront it, such as war and peace, economic justice, the promotion of human dignity and the sanctity of life, concern for the poor and the protection of the environment, not to mention inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, such as the important dialogue with Islam mentioned above. The complexity of these issues can only be adequately addressed, “if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable,”[3] and if we once more broaden the concept of reason with the perspective of faith.

The Holy Father’s Address to the United Nations

Against this background of the dynamic interplay between faith and reason, we can perhaps better understand the themes Pope Benedict raised at the United Nations last week. His visit there is itself an affirmation of the United Nations as a project for the good of the whole human family. As he told the assembled representatives of the UN General Assembly: “Through the United Nations, States have established universal objectives which, even if they do not coincide with the total common good of the human family, undoubtedly represent a fundamental part of that good. The founding principles of the Organization – the desire for peace, the quest for justice, respect for the dignity of the person, humanitarian cooperation and assistance – express the just aspirations of the human spirit, and constitute the ideals which should underpin international relations.”[4]

The Holy Father’s visit to the United Nations was also occasioned by the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In expressing his profound esteem for the UN, the Pope came also “to express the hope that the Organization will increasingly serve as a sign of unity between States and an instrument of service to the entire human family.”[5] The Pope’s unified vision of human reason enlightened by faith is the prerequisite for that service, and it is the context for his touching upon some major themes of import to the global community. Allow me briefly to highlight three of these major themes from the Holy Father’s address: human rights and the dignity of the human person, the unity of the human family, and the principle of protection.

  • Human Rights and the dignity of the human person

A clear conviction of Pope Benedict XVI is that the exclusion of God from public life results in a distorted concept of human rights. If rights are not understood as flowing from the essential dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God, then they become merely a function of political power. Pope Benedict affirmed this religious dimension of human rights in his address to the United Nations when he said: “Discernment, then, shows that entrusting exclusively to individual States, with their laws and institutions, the final responsibility to meet the aspirations of persons, communities and entire peoples, can sometimes have consequences that exclude the possibility of a social order respectful of the dignity and rights of the person. On the other hand, a vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help to achieve this, since recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism and war, and to promote justice and peace.”[6]

Universal human rights are bound up with the concept of the inalienable dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God. This dignity also forms the basis for a peaceful and just society, a topic which is of great concern to the Pope. The Holy Father’s teaching in the area of peace and justice can be seen as a two-pronged approach—two tasks, as it were—one the responsibility of government and the other the responsibility of the Church.

The distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God evidenced in Matthew’s Gospel (Cf. Mt. 22:21) has been fundamental in the Christian understanding of the relationship between Church and State as two distinct spheres of responsibility, although always interrelated. As an actor on the world stage, the Pope has a duty to remind governments that the establishment of a just society which fosters peace is the aim and intrinsic criterion of all political activity. Indeed, as he would write in his Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, “It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community's goods.”[7]

The commitment to peace and justice is an essential task for the State, for government exists precisely to promote the dignity and safeguard the fundamental rights of its citizens. Justice must be a matter of action, so that the foundations of a peaceful and just society will be actualized in the concrete realities of daily life. Pope Benedict puts it this way: “Peace cannot be a word or a vain aspiration. Peace is a commitment and a manner of life which demands that the legitimate aspirations of all should be satisfied, such as access to food, water and energy, to medicine and technology or indeed the monitoring of climate change.”[8]

Here, the Pope shows himself to be the figure of the prophet who speaks the truth not only to “the household of faith”, but to all people of good will committed to the advancement of the human family. Just as the State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now, the Church has its own essential task of entering into dialogue with culture and with the State in the promotion of peace and justice. In taking up the vital questions—What is justice? What is peace?—the Church engages the heart of the issue where faith and politics meet.

· The unity of the human family

Another important theme in the Holy Father’s address to the United Nations is the unity of the human family. I was struck by how many times in his address the Pope referred to the concept of unity or solidarity.

Solidarity in the human family is the prerequisite for human rights, the guarantee that rights will be applied and recognized universally. In this context, Pope Benedict remarked, “Since rights and the resulting duties follow naturally from human interaction, it is easy to forget that they are the fruit of a commonly held sense of justice built primarily upon solidarity among the members of society, and hence valid at all times and for all peoples.”[9] He understands this point in regard to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when he said: “It is evident, that the rights recognized and expounded in the Declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history. They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks. This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights.”[10]

Solidarity is also the framework an adequate response to the most important issues affecting our global society. As the Pope aptly observed, “questions of security, development goals, reduction of local and global inequalities, protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate, require all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law, and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.”[11]

Finally, solidarity draws us toward the goal of the Christian life, because it reveals something essential about the eternal life of heaven. “This life”, says Pope Benedict, “towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a ‘people’, and for each individual it can only be attained within this ‘we’. It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I’, because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.”[12]

  • The principle of protection

“Recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the image dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect.” With these words, Pope Benedict XVI presented the UN General Assembly with another key theme of his address, and proposed that the responsibility to protect is one of the fundamental obligations of the State and consequently of the United Nations. The Pope affirmed that each State has a responsibility to protect its citizens. He also affirmed that the international community must intervene when States are unable to guarantee such protections. In this way, the Pope is supporting the role of the United Nations to foster international order and to take action in the face of grave violations of human rights, as well as in the aftermath of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made. In recent years, the UN involvement in East Timor, Afghanistan, Bosnia, or those countries devastated by the Tsunami of December 2004 are examples of the principle of protection in action. On the other hand, the lack of action in Rwanda or more recently in the Darfur region could be cited as examples of the failure to engage this “principle of protection” in the service of humanity.

Notice that the articulation of this principle to protect flows from the Holy Father’s unified vision of reason broadened by the perspective of faith. He grounds it in the understanding of the unity of the human family and in the essential dignity of the human person, a unity and dignity given by God in the very act of creation. If one were to remove these religious points of reference, then the principle of protection collapses. As the Pope reminded the General Assembly, “The founding of the United Nations, as we know, coincided with the profound upheavals that humanity experienced when reference to the meaning of transcendence and natural reason was abandoned, and in consequence, freedom and human dignity were grossly violated. When this happens, it threatens the objective foundations of the values inspiring and governing the international order and it undermines the cogent and inviolable principles formulated and consolidated by the United Nations.”

Far from limiting or threatening human freedom, faith refines man’s understanding of his place in the world and his relationship with and responsibility to his brothers and sisters in the human family. In that way, the perspective of faith provides the anthropological foundation which allows reason to identify the common good and to pursue human progress in a way that is truly liberating, truly life-affirming.


Dear friends, I thank you for this opportunity to visit this wonderful Archdiocese of Brisbane, and to share with you this evening one facet of the life and ministry of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. I know from my regular meetings with the Holy Father that he draws strength and encouragement from the support of your prayers. Indeed, I believe that the prayers of Catholics world-wide is an occasion of actual grace for the Holy Father, sustaining him in the many daunting tasks which confront him. I can only encourage you to pray regularly for the intentions of the Holy Father. I would ask your prayers also for me and for those of us who work in Rome at the service to the Pope and the Universal Church. In the solidarity of faith and prayer, we can give witness to the values of God’s Kingdom in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives and proclaim to the world the Good News of Christ our Hope.

Thank you very much.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Representatives of Science, University of Regensburg, September 12, 2006.

[2] Ibid.


[4]Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the United Nations Organization, April 18, 2008.


[6] Ibid.

[7]Deus Caritas Est, #26.

[8] Address to the Diplomatic Corps for the traditional exchange of New Year’s Greetings, January 7, 2008, #12.

[9] Address to the United Nations Organization, April 18, 2008.


[11] Ibid.

[12] Spe Salvi, #14.