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Shah: Pope to Stress ‘Importance of Peace’ in Iraq, Middle East

Interviewee: Timothy Samuel Shah, Former Adjunct Senior Fellow for Religion and Foreign Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 11, 2008

Timothy Samuel Shah, a senior research scholar at Boston University, says that when Pope Benedict XVI makes his first U.S. visit as pope, it will give Americans a chance to hear firsthand his views on “the importance of peace” in Iraq and between Israel and Palestine, as well as to hear his views on immigration.

Pope Benedict XVI is making his first visit as pope to the United States this coming week. What do you think Americans should expect from this trip and what can they learn from it?

Americans will learn a great deal about Benedict. In a sense the ground is a very fertile one for the Pope’s visit. There is a combination of Americans not knowing very much about him but being relatively open, and of Catholics who feel generally very positive about Benedict XVI. This will be an opportunity for both these groups to see the Pope up close; to see, perhaps, a side of him that people are not very familiar with. When as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was elevated to the papacy in 2005, there were lots of expressions then suggesting that he was a very dogmatic, hard-line sort of person. He’s been described as “God’s Rottweiler.” But people close to him suggest that he has a great, playful sense of humor and that there is a personal warmth. There’s also a suggestion that he does have warm feelings towards the United States.

His major public appearance outside of various masses will be at the United Nations General Assembly. Benedict got into some controversy last year over a speech in which he quoted from a fourteenth century manuscript that was critical of Mohammed. I don’t know what you would expect from him in this UN speech.

You will certainly not hear him make any criticisms of the Islamic faith or the Muslim community. As it is fairly well known, Benedict XVI took his papal name from the Benedict who founded the great monasteries of Europe and the monastic order, but also from Pope Benedict XV, who tried strenuously and heroically to prevent World War I. So the pope consistently again and again talks about peace. I suspect that will be a dominant theme of his remarks at the United Nations: the importance of peace, the importance of reconciliation, the importance of restoring peace to places like Iraq, where the Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Mosul was murdered recently. There is an acute sense at the Vatican that the chaotic and violent situation in Iraq is not only terrible in itself but also does very serious damage to the Christian community in Iraq.

The Vatican was opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Given the political season now upon us in the United States, I suppose there will be many Americans who would like to see the pope say something critical of the war. But the pope has made his peace with the U.S. government on this issue, right?

He’s made his peace insofar as there is an agreement to disagree. The pope continues to express great concern about the situation in Iraq and suggests that it should be much better than it is. It could be taken as indirect criticism of U.S. policy insofar as the United States has not brought peace to Iraq. We will undoubtedly hear references to the situation in Iraq and some people critical of the Iraq policy might suggest that they have some implication for the current presidential election campaign.

The Vatican has always been interested in a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Various popes have made efforts to talk to both sides. Will he speak about this problem?

As in Iraq, part of what drives the concern about the situation between Israelis and Palestinians is a sense of concern for the Christian community, particularly in Palestine. There is a sense of solidarity with Christian Palestinians because of the volatile situation and also partly because of the increasing influence of Hamas in parts of Palestinian territories. Many Christians have left the Palestinian territories in recent years, which is also true of Iraq, where there has been a mass exodus. So, the Vatican is naturally going to look at issues like this from the perspective of its flock. There is a strong concern about the situation that is influenced a great deal by Palestinian perspectives. There are not large numbers of Christians in Israel but there are numbers of Christians in Palestine, so there is a tendency to look at this situation differently from the way the United States looks at it. The United States is more sympathetic and favorable to the Israeli point of view than the Palestinian point of view.

The pope is making a decided effort to talk to Jews. He’s visiting a synagogue while he’s in New York and he’s taking part in a meeting with Jews in Washington. Is this due to the concerns raised by some Jewish leaders about the Good Friday prayer in Latin that he has revived which says, "Let us also pray for the Jews. May the Lord Our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men."

Well, yes. The Good Friday prayer in parts of Christian liturgy and of course in parts of the Gospels themselves note the involvement of Jewish leaders in the crucifixion of Christ. The Gospel of John talks a great deal about the involvement of the Jews in the Passion and crucifixion of Christ. It’s understandable that there would be Jewish concern about all of this. On the other hand there has been a movement, particularly from Vatican II [1965] onwards, intensifying with John Paul II, for a much broader and nuanced understanding about how those passages should be interpreted.

The pope continues to express great concern about the situation in Iraq and suggests that it should be much better than it is. It could be taken as indirect criticism of U.S. policy insofar as the United States has not brought peace to Iraq.

There is an increasing sense, not just in Catholic theology but also in Protestant theology, that the responsibility for the death of Christ and the crucifixion of Christ does not lie in some exclusive way with the Jews or Jewish leaders but that responsibility for the death of Christ actually lies with all of us because Christ was crucified for the sins of the whole world. There is an increasing emphasis in Christian, including Catholic, theology on this over the last few years. John Paul II with his visits to Yad Vashem [Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust] and several other important overtures and dialogues made it very clear that the church very deeply regretted any encouragement of anti-Semitism. You will hear that from Benedict XVI as well, who is acutely aware of that history. It would be very surprising if in the discussions with Jewish leaders in this visit and in other opportunities the pope didn’t return to that theme.

In the United States right now there are an increasing number of Hispanic immigrants, illegal and legal, who are devout Catholics. Do you think he will speak out on immigration questions, which of course are very touchy here?

I suspect there may well be references to the immigration issue. Of course these references will not be politically direct, but I suspect you’ll hear references to the importance of society being open and compassionate to immigrants, to strangers, to sojourners and so forth. The pope is already very much aware that the Catholic community in the United States is increasingly Spanish-speaking of Latin American origin. The message that he delivered yesterday to the people of the United States, to the Catholics of America, he gave both in English and Spanish. He is very aware that part of his audience is Spanish-speaking, Hispanic Catholics who are very concerned about the increasing mood in the United States of hostility on immigration. You have more and more cities adopting measures to round up illegal immigrants, at least illegal immigrants that are guilty of minor crimes. I’m sure it will come up in either formal or informal remarks. He is certainly very acutely aware of this.

When he meets with the Catholic community at the Shrine in Washington, people also speculate that he might take the occasion to rebuke American Catholics for being too “liberal.”

I think that’s right. The pope tends to hold the view, to put it crudely, that quality is more important than quantity, that it’s nice that the United States is the third-largest Catholic country in the world—we have 70 million Roman Catholics, only Brazil and Mexico have more Catholics than the United States. But one has to wonder whether the Catholic community is not sort of like the Potomac River—a mile wide and a foot deep—that lots of people are part of the Catholic community but how deeply committed is this group of people to all the teachings of the Catholic Church?

He is very aware that part of his audience is Spanish-speaking, Hispanic Catholics who are very concerned about the increasing mood in the United States of hostility on immigration.

The pope, in comments he’s made over many years and the comments he’s made about the Catholic Church in Europe, has sometimes suggested that the Catholic Church in Europe, and Germany in particular, which he knows best, may in some ways be small, but has a depth of commitment which suggests that to him the important thing is not how many people you get to attend mass. The important thing to him is not how some Americans view church growth strategies—how many people can you get through the door—but rather, to look at these matters in terms of the depth of moral and spiritual formation. And I suspect the Pope will talk about that set of issues. He will ask, “Are Catholic churches, Catholic educational institutions really inculcating the full range of Catholic teaching on a variety of issues?” He means not just the kind of issues that conservatives like to talk about—birth control, abortion—but also teachings on the death penalty, peace, and social justice and so forth. There is a lot of concern among some Catholics about where the direction of its flagship universities like Notre Dame and Georgetown, is going. I expect that the pope at some point will address this issue of whether leading institutions of higher learning in the United States are doing their job.

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