Saturday, April 19, 2008


For the world's one billion Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI is very important indeed. In fact, one could say he is the most important Christian in the world of any sort, by one sort of evaluation. Certainly if one evaluates such things on the basis of pure influence, then Benedict would have to be placed on the top of the list. I sat and watched the full worship service of the Mass celebrated in Washington for 46,000 attendees the other day, and was pleased with the basically Christ-centered message offered, as well as the apology offered to the victims of priestly sexual abuse. I was especially glad to see the Pope meet personally and in private not only with some of those very victims and apologize to them personally, but I was equally encouraged by his visit to a Manhattan synagogue as well. There is a lot of fence-mending needed at this juncture, as these are difficult times for the Catholic Church. It is furthermore encouraging that Pope Benedict may well be the most theologically well-trained and adept Pope in living memory. While I certainly do not agree with his theology of either ministry or celibacy as a requirement for ministry, I have been impressed with his pastoral approach to various serious problems the church faces. Last year we were privileged at Asbury to have the Pope's own preacher visit and share with us for a couple of days and preach in our chapel. It was a great honor, and one senses that in the 21rst century the best sort of ecumenism will gain new life and legs, as it ought to do. We have enough adversaries in the world who hate Christianity as it is, without helping their cause by Christians attacking other Christians. I have just returned from doing some lectures at the consortium of Christian colleges in Minneapolis. One of my hosts had to leave early, an Assemblies of God professor. He was in a hurry to get to N.Y. as he had been invited with numerous others to meet the Pope. He was truly excited. I must say I had to smile about this. Clearly we are in a better place when low church Protestants stop anathematizing the Pope, and treat him as a fellow brother in Christ who should be warmly welcomed to America.

Below you will find the full address the Pope gave in his first day in America at the White House. Let me know what you think.


Following is the official text of Pope Benedict's address on Wednesday at the White House, where he was received by President George W. Bush on the first full day of his six-day visit to the United States.

The German-born pontiff addressed a crowd of 9,000 in the Rose Garden in English.

"Mr. President, thank you for your gracious words of welcome on behalf of the people of the United States of America. I deeply appreciate your invitation to visit this great country. My visit coincides with an important moment in the life of the Catholic community in America: the celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the elevation of the country's first Diocese — Baltimore — to a metropolitan Archdiocese, and the establishment of the Sees of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville. Yet I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society. America's Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.

"From the dawn of the Republic, America's quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation's founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the "self-evident truth" that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature's God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations.

"In the next few days, I look forward to meeting not only with America's Catholic community, but with other Christian communities and representatives of the many religious traditions present in this country. Historically, not only Catholics, but all believers have found here the freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, while at the same time being accepted as part of a commonwealth in which each individual and group can make its voice heard. As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.

"Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience — almost every town in this country has its monuments honouring those who sacrificed their lives in defence of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that "in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation," and a democracy without values can lose its very soul. Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent "indispensable supports" of political prosperity.

"The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. She is convinced that faith sheds new light on all things, and that the Gospel reveals the noble vocation and sublime destiny of every man and woman. Faith also gives us the strength to respond to our high calling, and the hope that inspires us to work for an ever more just and fraternal society. Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.

"For well over a century, the United States of America has played an important role in the international community. On Friday, God willing, I will have the honour of addressing the United Nations Organization, where I hope to encourage the efforts under way to make that institution an ever more effective voice for the legitimate aspirations of all the world's peoples. On this, the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the need for global solidarity is as urgent as ever, if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity -- as brothers and sisters dwelling in the same house and around that table which God's bounty has set for all his children. America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs, fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes. I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress. In this way, coming generations will be able to live in a world where truth, freedom and justice can flourish — a world where the God-given dignity and rights of every man, woman and child are cherished, protected and effectively advanced.

"Mr. President, dear friends: as I begin my visit to the United States, I express once more my gratitude for your invitation, my joy to be in your midst, and my fervent prayers that Almighty God will confirm this nation and its people in the ways of justice, prosperity and peace. God bless America!"


Shawn Brace said...

Interesting thoughts.

But I am left wondering: are we not in danger of betraying the Reformation when we attempt to join hands with Catholicism? This is not to say that we should stigmatize all Catholics, but it seems to me that Luther, Calvin, Hus, Zwingli, et al, had some pretty strong things to say about the Papacy. I wonder what they would say if they could see our reverence for Rome today.

Just something to think about . . .

Raffi Shahinian said...


In answer to your question, I think, or I hope, that they would see that the Papcy today is a different thing than was the Papacy in their day. Not entirely different, and not entirely the same. I also wonder if these great Reformers would have something to say about the institutions that have developed based on their revolutionary ideals. In sum, I think its important to view these things in their historical contexts.

Just something to think about...

Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian
Parables of a Prodigal World

Margueasio said...

Dr. Witherington,

How are you doing? I have read your blog on occasion and have decided to join in some of the discussions. Do you find the Pope's use of the phrase "God Bless America" problematic? Personally, I am troubled by the phrase, as it is implicitly divisive. However, most who would use the phrase do not have divisive intentions, but the divisiveness arises implicitly. When one says, "God Bless America," essentially they are asking God to bless America and no one else. I believe that God wishes to bless all of humanity and not just America. Any thoughts?


Ben Witherington said...

I am quite sure that the Pope, being a German, did not mean the phrase 'God bless America' to be exclusive in any way shape or form.


Jeff Bailey said...

I guess I do find it a bit troubling that this is the same Pope who has endorsed the Vatican document which clearly states that churches born out of the Reformation cannot really be called churches. I of course consider Catholics to be Christian but I feel that this document seems to say that Protestants are not. Am I misunderstanding their position?

Ben Witherington said...

Vatican 2 was perfectly clear that "the separated brethren are nonetheless brothers and sisters in Christ". I doubt that the document you meant would contradict the official position of the RC Church. And as for Protestant ecclesiology, I understand their concern. Any group that splits into 500 denominations has a weak ecclesiology!


Shawn Brace said...


I'm afraid that history shows that Protestantism has done more of the changing than Catholicism has.

Joanie D. said...

I think that was a nice presentation the Pope did at the White House. Thanks for printing it here. I was brought up Catholic, but I now am not attending church, but doing much reading by N.T. Wright, some of the emerging church leaders, and blogging away over on the Parchment and Pen blog thanks to Michael Patten and gang. I also stop by this blog of yours from time to time, Ben, and like what you have to say. I also saw you on the introductory part of Erwin McManus' film series, "Cravings." Very nice!

Practicing a form of Christian prayer called Centering Prayer as taught by Catholic monk-priest, Thomas Keating, also helps me in so many ways.

Joanie D.

John Warren said...

The bishop of Rome is called Holy Father (a title that belongs to God the Father). He is called the Head of the Church, and now it seems Chief Shepherd (titles that belong to God the Son). He is called the Vicar of Christ (a title that belongs to God the Holy Spirit). How is the Church "in a better place" when we stand by and let someone get away with this blasphemy?