By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI will become the third leader of the Catholic Church to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York, following Pope Paul VI in 1965, and Pope John Paul II in 1979 and 1995.
Vatican officials have not indicated what Benedict might say in his April 18 speech, but if his past statements are any guide, he will address some of the U.N.’s most prominent agenda items, such as arms control and the fight against global poverty and disease, along with issues of particular interest to the Holy See, such as religious freedom and abortion.

Whatever the precise content, Benedict’s U.N. speech is bound to reflect a vision of peace and development drawn from Catholic social teaching — priorities that cut across the usual geographic, political or ideological boundaries of the world community.
Like his predecessors, Benedict enthusiastically supports the U.N.’s founding mission, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its central operating principle of multilateral diplomacy.
On Feb. 29, the pope told the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, that resolving global conflicts calls for “trust in, and commitment to, the work of international bodies such as the United Nations.”
The reference had special resonance since the Vatican opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 largely because the Bush administration lacked an explicit U.N. mandate.
Benedict”s U.N. speech is likely to clash with White House policy in other areas, too.
“On Iraq, terrorism, poverty, refugees, disarmament, the environment, Third World debt, trade — on these issues, the pope is usually to the left of the Democrats,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.
For Benedict, peace is inextricably related to economic development.
He has said that “one cannot speak of peace in situations where human beings are lacking even the basic necessities,” and has called for new “legal structures” to remedy the inequality “between the First and the Third World.”
Benedict has also spoken out in favor of protecting the natural environment. “We can’t simply do whatever we want with this earth that has been entrusted to us,” he said last year. “We have to respect the inner laws of creation … and obey them if we want to survive.”
Speaking to an audience as diverse as the General Assembly, the pope will not appeal to specifically Catholic beliefs, but to common ethical principles of “natural law.” Yet Benedict’s unique role as a head of state and leader of the world’s largest church inevitably implies special attention to religion.
Benedict has repeatedly spoken out against religiously based discrimination and persecution, particularly against Christians in Islamic nations.
Benedict believes “religious freedom must be protected, including the right to convert and even to promote conversions,” says the Rev. Robert A. Gahl Jr., an American who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. “The Pope advocates the free discussion of faith, even, one could say, a competitive and free market place among religions.”
Any reference to religiously justified terrorism, which Benedict has forcefully denounced on other occasions, will be especially potent in the U.N. context.
The proximity of Ground Zero (which the pope will visit two days later) will render his words on the subject all the more poignant, and the presence of scores of ambassadors from Islamic states will add to the drama. A 2006 lecture in which Benedict quoted a 14th-century description of the Prophet Muhammad’s legacy as “evil and inhuman” drew condemnation from Muslim leaders and sparked violent protests.
On the other hand, most of his Muslim listeners are likely to welcome any papal remarks regarding sexual and medical ethics. In his official message for the World Day of Peace this year, Benedict suggested that abortion, birth control and same-sex marriage all pose threats to peace by undermining the traditional family.
The Vatican’s positions on these issues increasingly put it at odds with leaders and citizens in the wealthy, global West. But the same issues are areas of agreement with the Bush administration, whose U.N. representatives have backed the Holy See on such questions as abortion funding and the use of condoms to fight the spread of AIDS.
Benedict’s address to the General Assembly is likely to offer something for everyone — and to make practically everyone listening at least a little uneasy.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.
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