Wednesday, 16 April 2008

President Bush greets Pope Benedict XVI

Earlier this evening, more on impulse than anything else, I followed a link on the BBC News website and watched a video clip of the speeches of President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI at the White House. I found President Bush's address particularly moving, and a splendid contrast to a recent effort in this country by Tony Blair. The full text can be found on the White House website [update 28th January 2009, ie post Obama: not any longer it can't.], along with the text of Pope Benedict's address. I confine my comments to the content of the address itself, and leave on one side observations that might be made about the involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, capital punishment and perhaps other aspects of US foreign policy. My comments are made on extracts and do not present the full address.

"Holy Father, Laura and I are privileged to have you here at the White House. We welcome you with the ancient words commended by Saint Augustine: "Pax Tecum." Peace be with you."

Note the courtesy of address, from someone who is not a Catholic - "Holy Father". And the use of Latin is a nice touch.

"This is your first trip to the United States since you ascended to the Chair of Saint Peter. ... Here in America you'll find a nation of prayer. Each day millions of our citizens approach our Maker on bended knee, seeking His grace and giving thanks for the many blessings He bestows upon us. Millions of Americans have been praying for your visit, and millions look forward to praying with you this week."

Note the courtesy again - "the Chair of Saint Peter". And what a testimony of faith, as President Bush talks about prayer. It is not the language of vague "faith" but that of a firm and exact conviction of the efficacy of prayer.

"Here in America you'll find a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square. When our Founders declared our nation's independence, they rested their case on an appeal to the 'laws of nature, and of nature's God.' We believe in religious liberty. We also believe that a love for freedom and a common moral law are written into every human heart, and that these constitute the firm foundation on which any successful free society must be built...

"The United States is the most innovative, creative and dynamic country on earth -- it is also among the most religious. In our nation, faith and reason coexist in harmony. This is one of our country's greatest strengths, and one of the reasons that our land remains a beacon of hope and opportunity for millions across the world. "

One might ask questions about the claim for greatness on the part of the United States - but the point about it being profoundly religious is important. Separation of religion and state (what Pope Benedict would recognise as a proper secularity of the state) does not mean the absence of religion from public life. The noting of a "common moral law" that is written "into every human heart" is also an important recognition of what Catholics would call "natural law". And President Bush has obviously noticed one of Pope Benedict's main themes, that of the relation of faith and reason.

"Most of all, Holy Father, you will find in America people whose hearts are open to your message of hope"

"Christ our Hope" is the theme chosen by the Catholic Church for the Pope's visit to the United States.

"In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that 'God is love.' And embracing this love is the surest way to save men from 'falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism.'"

This is a fascinating reference to Deus Caritas Est, to which there is also an implicit reference earlier in President Bush's address where he talks about the citizens of the United States working each day in acts of charity, and, as a country, engaging in charitable/aid activity throughout the world. This paragraph followed immediately after the one beginning "This is your first trip .." quoted above. The parallel to the two part structure of Deus Caritas Est - God is love, and therefore we are called to love of neighbour - is irresistable.

"In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred, and that 'each of us is willed, each of us is loved' -- (applause) -- and your message that 'each of us is willed, each of us is loved, and each of us is necessary.'

In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this 'dictatorship of relativism,' and embrace a culture of justice and truth. (Applause.) "

Wow! Not just for President Bush, but for the crowd who applauded - twice, and strongly! This moment in the speech really is worth watching on video. The camera moved back at this point to bring Pope Benedict into view, and you can see him react to the reference to relativism, smiling .. The phrase is, of course, taken from Pope Benedict himself. At the end of President Bush's speech, Pope Benedict rises briskly to shake the President's hand.

"Holy Father, thank you for making this journey to America. Our nation welcomes you. We appreciate the example you set for the world, and we ask that you always keep us in your prayers. (Applause.) "


Ma Beck said...

Wow, a fantastic commentary - I didn't see it, but thanks for your insight!

(And all of America breathes a sigh of relief that W didn't say something like "misunderestimated.")


Joe said...

The Times today reports President Bush's "Thank you, your Holiness. Awesome speech. We're going to sit down for one more song", picked up by the microphones at the end of Pope Benedict's address. It describes this as President Bush's "latest indiscretion to be overheard worldwide".... Hardly! I thought it was quite touching that it was President Bush himself who advised Pope Benedict about what was to happen next rather than an official/MC.

Ma Beck said...

I totally agree with you.

I think it shows great respect and a childlike quality (the good kind - the kind we should all strive for) that he said that.

He wants the Pope to feel comfortable, it's obvious.