Within only a few hours on September 22, Pope Benedict XVI and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave major addresses in front of two bodies, the German Bundestag and the United Nations General Assembly, respectively. These two very different men gave two very different speeches, yet their presence and words generated an identical response: boycotts and walk-outs by assembly members.
Domestically and internationally, Ahmadinejad is regarded by not a few as a capricious dictator whose presidency has included serious human rights violations, routine defiance of the United Nations, development of capabilities for nuclear weapons, and massive student protests against his government. His speech to the U.N., stylized as an analysis of the current international order, was a screed attacking the global policies of the United States and her NATO allies. Diplomats representing more than a dozen countries walked out in response.
In some circles the pope is viewed as unfavorably as the Iranian president. They see him as the head of a backward-looking, misogynistic organization that continues to thwart social progress by her stands against homosexual relationships and the use of prophylactics to thwart the spread of AIDS. A week before his visit to Germany, a petition presented to The Hague’s International Criminal Court sought to prosecute Benedict for crimes against humanity due to his perceived negligence in halting the abuse of minors by clergy. Protesters lined the streets surrounding the Reichstag Building in Berlin during Benedict’s address to the legislature, whose seats were vacated by boycotters and other walk-outs.
Were the visits and speeches of Ahmadinejad and Benedict really controversial enough to cause such hysteria? Or do the protests of the respective diplomats reflect more the views and prejudices of their hearers?
Ahmadinejad, as he had done a year earlier before the same assembly, intentionally provoked western diplomats with his comments, particularly those attacking Zionism and insinuating that the attacks of September 11, 2001, were caused by a U.S. government conspiracy. But those who walked out were largely American and western diplomats whose relations with Iran were already tenuous. The president’s remarks were certainly caustic and wildly off-base, but a dozen protesting nations out of 193 is not an overwhelming percentage.
Benedict’s address, by contrast, was deemed a snoozer by the New York Times for its lack of controversy and its academic orientation. Indeed, Benedict's “thoughts on the foundations of a free state of law,” which explained how politicians can discern good from evil, is hardly a matter worthy of protest. That Benedict went on to praise the ecology movement, a sacred cow for many liberals, makes the walk-outs even more striking. Because of his premature departure, the Times reports that Hans-Christian Ströbele of the Green Party missed the pope’s lavish praise of his work.
No prophet is without honor except in his native place, but among the intelligentsia the reception of Benedict in Germany was particularly cold. The Bundestag walk-outs attest that the wider opposition to Benedict on display in the press and on the streets was just not to his particular message, but to his person as the living embodiment of his message. For these deniers of the transcendent, Benedict is not the Antichrist, but an inimicus, a personal enemy whose life long work threatens to undercut their myopic Weltanschauung at its very foundations.
A majority of Germans and other Europeans may well be indifferent to religion, but the fury with which the generals and soldiers of today’s Kulturkampf greeted Benedict suggests that these people are not blithe secularists, but rabid apostates from the Christian faith. They have consciously rejected their heritage, even if they never understood what it truly means. In its place, in Benedict’s words, they have created an “artificial world” that “resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide the lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world.” Having fought hard to create this artificial world, they remain on guard against challenges from believers who seek to restore balance to a wayward reason divorced from faith.
Achieving this restoration is the theological and cultural project of Benedict XVI. For decades he has wielded his pen against this apostasy, and now as pope he marshals tens of thousands to his cause with each appearance abroad. But what makes Benedict’s counter-attack especially fearsome to the German intelligentsia is more than just the depths of his work, which offers a formidable challenge to their position. Rather, it is the fact that he is Germany’s native son who has escaped from their artificial world to see the truth of God, of reason, and of nature that they have long denied. And even more devastatingly, he has done so always with a gentle and warm smile. The dreariness of the concrete bunker cannot withstand the explosive power of genuine happiness wedded to truth, and Benedict’s critics know this.
Benedict’s person and message are one. By his very presence last week he offered his fellow countrymen a path out of the bunker and into the light of truth. It is no wonder that the lawmakers in the Bundestag did not bother to hear his speech: they knew what he had to say before he uttered a word, and they did not want to hear it.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.
New York Times, Abuse Victims Ask Court to Prosecute the Vatican
New York Times, Pope Weathers Protests and Boycotts in First Official Visit to Germany
Visit to the Bundestag: Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI
Fall Web Campaign: Please donate to support the online mission of First Things.