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Hearing what they want to hear

Perhaps I am stupid—a number of my correspondents think this is the explanation—but I am frequently unable to make any sense at all of media reporting on religion. This puts me at a disadvantage in responding—as I am sometimes asked to do—to the latest reports.

Almost any public statement made by the pope or a Vatican official would serve as an example, and I sometimes wonder why they bother to say anything at all, given what will be reported. But for a specific recent example, let us take Pope Benedict’s annual remarks to the assembled diplomatic corps in the Vatican, two weeks ago.

According to almost every headline I saw or could search, he used the occasion to denounce world leaders for failing to make sufficient progress at Copenhagen. Knowing what I do about both the office and its present incumbent, I found this odd: for neither the Roman Church nor the former Joseph Ratzinger has a history of embracing statist solutions to—anything, really. Yet my inbox immediately filled with messages, from persons themselves of no known Catholic background, telling me the Pope had signed on to the whole “global warming” bill of goods.

In their defence, they could reasonably take that impression from the news headlines. And one could hardly expect that, before citing a Vatican “policy” with uncharacteristic approval, they would actually consult the Pope’s own words in their context. The whole premise of the liberal media is, after all, “You don’t have to do that because we do it for you.”

Imagine my own surprise, on consulting the original text, to find that the Pope had actually mentioned the Copenhagen climate conference. (Something in it!) He had referred to the “economic and political resistance” to fighting environmental degradation exhibited there. This was a direct observation that almost anyone could have made, and I myself noticed the spectacle of politicians from countries with the worst environmental records making self-righteous and self-serving attacks on those from countries with the best. But this is a far cry from signing on to anything.

Two things stand out, when actually reading the Pope’s text. The first is the unambiguous way in which he condemned socialist materialism. He referred expressly to the environmental fallout of the old Soviet regime, not only at home but in his native Germany. That would be the first hint that he was not advocating the sort of planetary “green socialism” on offer at the conference.

But more signally, see his leading example of political man versus God’s creation. It was the writing of new laws, all over the world, that undermine “the differences between the sexes.”

Here is the full “money line,” lest we add to the confusion:

“Creatures differ from one another and can be protected, or endangered, in different ways, as we know from daily experience. One such attack comes from laws or proposals, which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes. I am thinking, for example, of certain countries in Europe or North and South America.”

Now, as a Catholic myself I should perhaps be grateful that the news headlines were not, “Pope links global warming to gay marriage.” Yet as a media person, I could see that this headline was as plausible as the one almost universally chosen. And, not much more absurd.

The difficulty, for reporters and editors who are not only not Christian, but have no practical knowledge of Christian teachings and traditions—is that, even when trying their honest best, they translate what they hear into what they do understand. Those removed from religious life tend inevitably to assume that political questions are the only public ones, and that private and public life belong in different dimensions. They are not being malicious when they do this. They are instead being ignorant, which is often more dangerous.

The Pope was himself preaching—as popes commonly do—from an understanding of man in relation to “the creation” that is different in kind from the political view; and which is in fact more comprehensive. And he was making a statement that is not restricted to Catholic beliefs, nor even to those shared by all faithful Christians. Faithful Jews, incidentally, believe exactly the same thing, and to some degree so do exponents of other religious traditions.

We hold that man has not only a place, but a role in nature, that our material acts are resonant with both material and spiritual consequences. We hold that nature herself is not merely some clockwork, or supermarket. All agriculture, all husbanding, all human culture must adapt to truths more enduring than what is immediately on our plate.

In declaring that the roots of peace, of human prosperity, and of ecological well-being are integrated, the pope was perhaps saying something that went over the heads of many of the diplomats, too. But he has a hard sell, to people who think they are friends of nature, who begin by denying their own nature.


Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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