Posted April 28, 2008
Michael Novak on Pope's U.S. Visit (Part 2)
Interview With Theologian and Author
By Carrie Gress
With the election of Benedict XVI on the heels of Pope John Paul II's papacy, we have the best of both worlds, says Michael Novak.
Novak is a theologian, former ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights, and author of nearly 30 books, including the forthcoming "No One Sees God."
Q: What was your reaction to the Pope's address to the United Nations?
Novak: Part of his statement was standard, and repetitive of past statements, but part was very original and penetrating. The Pope emphasized that what is crucial for the United Nations and the world of the future is the protection of religious liberty. Religious liberty is the most basic of all liberties because it protects the precious conscience of every person. He spoke of the need to protect religious minorities. Implicitly, he defended the concept of equality before the law, and his comments relied on the establishment of the rule of law -- and probably also, of pluralistic democracies, of the sort that respect human rights.
But he did not stop at religious liberty. The United Nations, he said, must work to create room for religious people to speak of their faith and to argue from their faith in the public square. The public square does not belong only to secular people.
These passages brought to mind his exchange of letters with then president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera, in a volume called in English "Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam." There, the Pope pointed out that in America the separation of church and state is not negative, but positive. For example, the state does not try to control the public square, but it allows room for religious people to fully express themselves in the religious sphere. While church and state are separate in their functions, in actual life there can be no separation of religion and the political dimension of life. Each human person is at the same time a religious and a political being.
In those essays, he also distinguished the American idea of the separation of church and state from the European idea, which is very negative. What the Europeans do is give the state all the power and try to drive religion out, limiting it to the domain of private conscience. It has been rare for Europeans to see the difference between Europe and America so clearly, and at least in this one respect, to command the American side of the argument. That was the spirit that seemed to animate many of his remarks in America.
At one point at the White House, the President quoted St. Augustine and Pope Benedict. And for his part, the Holy Father quoted George Washington. It was rather nice. I don't remember a Pope analyzing an American text in such a scholarly but easily understandable way. One hasn't often heard the Vatican make such distinctions.
John Paul II was very pro-American. He loved America. He didn't mind chastising us when he thought we were wrong, but he really appreciated "the phenomenology of America." He really appreciated the sense of the whole, as well as some of the details. But Benedict has asked more carefully the question -- with the famous German capacity for analytic work -- "What is it that makes this country different? What is it that makes liberty work better here? What is it that creates a public square in which both religion and politics live fully together, and in which the faith of billions still thrives?"
In the White House, among journalists, and in many other places, Benedict XVI must have seen how many Catholics are present in important positions in the public square. He must also have seen how vital certain Catholic ideas such as "the culture of life," "subsidiarity," "the common good," an awareness of "human weakness and sin," and opposition to abortion have become. Twice at the Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York the crowd erupted in powerful applause during his sermon when the Pope spoke directly against abortion; pro-life sentiment is unusually powerful in America.
At the United Nations, one point Pope Benedict made is that it is not enough to mean by religious liberty the right of individuals to worship as they please, or to follow their conscience. Religious liberty also means a public space for religious activities.
In other places, the Pope praised all the public good that Catholics in America serve. There are some 220 Catholic universities, and those are public. He pointed to the huge Catholic hospital system, and the many Catholic missionaries working with the poor in Latin America and Africa. These are all public services. A good state has to allow scope for religious people to supply all these goods.
Q: The youth were always so loyal to John Paul II -- even known as the "JPII Generation." How do you think they have received Benedict XVI?
Novak: Peggy Noonan wrote the other day in the Wall Street Journal that Pope John Paul was the perfect Pope for the television age, because he was so dramatic and had such a winning face, gestures, wit, he was so quick on his feet. He radiated affection the way a good actor should. But, she said, Benedict is the best Pope for the Internet age. The blogs go on and on about what he meant by this, and what he meant by that. The discussion goes on for months.
The argument about what Benedict XVI said and did at Regensburg, for example, is still not finished; it is still being plumbed and argued over.
I think the Holy Father has claimed the "JPII generation" as his own. It is now the JPII/Benedict generation. There is not a break between them.
Benedict used to meet every Friday for an hour or two of discussion with John Paul II. They were on the same track philosophically and theologically, and they basically strengthened one another. Looked at wryly, this is the 29th year of John Paul II's pontificate.
Benedict XVI is a different man with a different style, with a different set of priorities and a different manner of acting, but in him, all this is perfectly becoming. Many commentators in America praised his sincerity and authenticity. He seems content to be who he is, and not to try to be someone else. One tough-guy journalist said to Peggy Noonan, as after a few days he nodded toward the Pope: "He's a good guy!" Americans admire authenticity. Benedict XVI has a right to be different from John Paul while continuing in the same line of renewal and re-evangelization. I think we are enjoying the best of both worlds, two in one.