Comments on the Pope’s Visit to Africa

Despite AUR’s disagreement with Rome’s trinitarian theology, there is much to admire in a church that contains a variety of traditions, viewpoints, and saintly followings* that allow for diversity under a unifying central vision.  There is much more to Catholicism than the doctrine of the Trinity, a broad range of redeeming characteristics, which is unfortunately not the case for many Protestant trinitarian denominations.

Still, there are occasions for disagreement with the Vatican beyond the misadventures of the 4th Century, when it becomes instructive to show how the views of RCC and AUR differ.  During his recent travels in Africa, while speaking to Muslims in Cameroon, Pope Benedict stated that “genuine religion … rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism: not only on principles of faith but also of right reason.”

The problem with this statement is that there is often no effective response to totalitarianism but violence.  A philosophy that rejects all forms of violence must necessarily accept some forms of totalitarianism, and a philosophy that rejects all forms of totalitarianism must necessarily accept some forms of violence.

The self-sabotaging ethic of pacifism and justice expressed by the Pope in Cameroon is characteristic of liberal theologians among whom (despite their opposition to abortion and contraception) Catholics currently stand.  A revealing example of this ethic is Martin Niemöller’s iconic poem against Nazi totalitarianism:

They came first for the communists,
___and I did not speak up, because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
___and I did not speak up, because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
___and I did not speak up, because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me,
___and by that time there was no one left to speak up.

While the sentiment of mutual accountability in this celebrated poem is admirable, the underlying idea that Nazi totalitarianism could have been stopped by “speaking up” is dangerous, and enables oppression.  It was not an army of rhetoriticians who marched on Berlin and liberated the death camps. 

Adult Moral Thinking

As Christians we certainly must love our enemies, but that does not absolve us the responsibility of protecting the innocent from those enemies.  We may turn the other cheek, but we have no right to turn someone else’s cheek, even by omission and inaction.  Jesus taught us to be “innocent as doves” but also “shrewd as serpents,” or as Paul put it: “in regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” 

The “right reason” Pope Benedict invoked requires us to balance considerations of peace and justice, and accept the harsh necessities presented by the real world.

Shrewd, adult thinking recognizes that not all oppressors can be talked down.  So, although we may not hate our enemies, that does not mean we delude ourselves about the often violent nature of social reality.  Jesus made this quite clear when he admonished his followers: “One who has no sword must sell his coat and buy one.”   Even Mahatma Gandhi, who has become an interfaith emblem of non-violence, was emphatic on this point:

I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honour by non-violently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor.

The moral distinction is not between the violent and the non-violent, but between those who engage in violence enthusiastically and those who resort to violence only reluctantly and out of necessity.  This is the core ethic of ius ad bellum, a just reason for war : that war is justified only when peace and justice cannot be simultaneously served. 

But even so, just war has as its ultimate goal a just peace, and therefore all valid articulations of ius ad bellum are in reality expressions of ius in pace, ways to achieve justice in the larger context of long-term peace, just as surgery is a wound we suffer temporarily in order to make the body whole and healthy over the long term.

A just and reasonable religion no more abjures violent force in the pursuit of social justice than a loving and reasonable adult would abjure medical treatment for his or her infant.

Still, although his rhetoric was regrettable, by celebrating the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims in Cameroon — which stands in shocking contrast to the inter-religious strife in Nigeria to the north — Pope Benedict is striking a helpful chord.  If everyone would choose peace, peace is possible.  The Cameroonians, and in fact the Pope himself, are proving  a concept that the Nigerians should emulate.


* “Followings” has a far less negative connotation than the term normally used to describe devotees of particular saints: “cults.”