The Pope on freedom

Hans Rollmann
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Pope Benedict XVI recently celebrated his 81st birthday in the United States. His visit coincided with the bicentennial of raising the first U.S. Roman Catholic diocese, Baltimore, into an archdiocese and the establishment of the dioceses of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville (earlier Bardstown).
This journey to America was not the first for the scholarly Pope from Bavaria. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had lectured there before and has long been a keen observer of American life and culture.
In the three years of his pontificate, Benedict XVI has stirred some public controversy, but even his opponents in and outside the church have expressed a grudging respect for the Pope's intellectual vision and theological depth.
Thus the much-anticipated papal visit became a series of media events ranging from a private and emotion-filled encounter with victims of sexual abuse by the clergy to a mass in Yankee stadium.
Pastoral gatherings with clergy and laity were framed by arrival and farewell ceremonies with an increasingly unpopular president and vice-president, who can only have envied the visitor's great popularity.
There was also a spiritual event of larger than Catholic significance when the Pope visited Ground Zero and offered a prayer of compassion, healing and peace, preceded by ecumenical encounters with representatives from different Christian denominations and religions, including a visit to a Jewish synagogue in New York during the week leading up to Passover.
He met with Catholic scholars and educators and addressed the United Nations - the global centrepiece of his trip.

Freedom speech
Anyone reading the Pope's American speeches and sermons cannot fail to note that he enunciated and interpreted one value and theme especially dear to many Americans - the notion of freedom.
During welcoming ceremonies on April 16 at the White House, Benedict alluded to the abiding American quest for freedom, which has remained alive in American consciousness since the founding of the republic.
But in this first of his public addresses, the Pope also linked the gift of freedom with the challenge of using it responsibly.
The call for freedom throughout history, he maintained, is in its most authentic moments joined to a principled life of virtue and self-discipline, and often to a "sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate."

Responsible freedom
Speaking with U.S. bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on the same day, a meeting in which he also criticized the way bishops had handled sexual abuse by priests, Benedict returned to the notion of responsible freedom.
In questions of freedom, he argued, one should never lose sight of an individual's vital relation to a community and the mutual support that such a redeemed community offers. Christian freedom for the Roman pontiff is "a liberation both from the limitations of sin and for an authentic and fulfilling life."
This "freedom for" has implications for the life of faith and human relationships, which for Benedict is not limited to rational or legal obligations but is "an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems." Benedict linked freedom to vital truth as a necessary bulwark against a great contemporary challenge, the "dictatorship of relativism," which, according to the pontiff, is a threat to "genuine human freedom, which only matures in generosity and fidelity to the truth."
In his meeting with educators the Pope authenticated such a lived truth with reference to several saints. These men and women of exemplary faith from divergent ethnic and vocational backgrounds had, the Pope argued, witnessed through their sacrificial lives to truth in freedom. In several of his talks, he returned again and again to the challenges of relativism and self-seeking individualism as well as to the pursuit of novelty and the leveling of all experiences as being of equal validity, which he judged as threats to true freedom.

Co-operative initiatives
In meeting with representatives of other religions, the pope valued the co-operation and common initiatives that had flourished on American soil, something observed already by the 19th-century French visitor to America, Alexis de Tocqueville.
Despite many impressive past achievements in interreligious collaboration, maintenance of religious freedom remains a challenge that requires a culture of respect for religious minorities. Here, formal legal protection is not enough. Benedict encouraged a genuine dialogue among the faiths that would identify religious values that men and women of differing religions share and with which they can inspire the wider culture.
In any genuine dialogue, carried out with reason and in love, not only points of commonality will be discovered but also differences.
"While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace," the Pope stated, "we must listen attentively to the voice of truth."
Because for Benedict - unlike many postmodern contemporaries - objective, discoverable truth exists, "our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but go on to probe their ultimate foundation."
Here interreligious dialogue does not need to fear reason, "for the truth unveils for us the essential relationship between the world and God."

Broad benefits
Protestant and Catholic Christians and members of other faith communities can only benefit from such an honest dialogue and are engaged already in such discussions here in St. John's.
I was privy recently to two beneficial interfaith discussions. One was a dialogue on prayer in Christianity and Islam, sponsored by the St. John's clergy, the other a lecture by Toronto philosopher Robert Gibbs on "Breaking Barriers: Jews, Christians and Muslims Reading Each Other's Scriptures," sponsored by the department of philosophy at Memorial University and the Jewish Community Havura.
In addition, the Interfaith Women's Group of St. John's meets monthly for discussion and building community.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: United Nations, Jewish Community Havura

Geographic location: United States, New York, Baltimore Boston Philadelphia Louisville Yankee stadium Ground Zero Washington St. John's Toronto Interfaith Women

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