ON EASTER SUNDAY, with the exhausting round of Holy Week liturgies completed, Pope Benedict XVI offered the customary papal address, Urbi et orbi, to the city and to the world. The atmosphere was festive--tulips and apple blossoms adorned the central loggia of St. Peter's Basilica--but reports of the speech have been markedly somber. Understandably so, for it was there that Benedict declared, "nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civilian population flees."
The pope's simple and largely incontrovertible observation has unfortunately been wrenched from its original context and put to the service of other, quite different, purposes. Most notably, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has lately taken to invoking the authority of Pope Benedict. In a recent press release, Sen. Reid repeatedly referred to Benedict's address, suggesting that the pope's remarks support Reid's case for a phased withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. They do no such thing.
A bit of context is in order. Benedict's address was not primarily concerned with Iraq, nor with the United States, nor even with affairs of state. Rather, it was first and foremost a reflection on the promise of Easter--a promise that, as Benedict put it, "by His rising the Lord has not taken away suffering and evil from the world but has vanquished them at their roots by the superabundance of His grace."
Suffering and evil persist, however, and Benedict recounted many of the "[n]atural calamities and human tragedies that cause innumerable victims and enormous material destruction." He lamented "the scourge of hunger, of incurable diseases, of terrorism and kidnapping of people, of the thousand faces of violences which some people attempt to justify in the name of religion, of contempt for life, of the violation of human rights and the exploitation of persons." He bemoaned crises in Madagascar, the Solomon Islands, Latin America, Darfur, the Congo, Somalia, Zimbabwe, East Timor, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Only then did Benedict devote one-half of one sentence to the subject of Iraq; indeed, on a word-count basis, mention of Iraq constitutes about 1 percent of his entire address.
It is true, of course, that these brief words characterize the situation in Iraq as one of "continual slaughter," and it is fair for Sen. Reid to repeat that description again and again. But at a recent press conference, Sen. Reid distorted the nature of the remark when he suggested that the pope's observation also entailed a policy prescription. As Reid put it, "the president should understand that it's not just the Democratic Congress that is crying for a change in direction. It's the pope."
The suggestion that Benedict endorses the policies of the Democratic Congress is unwarranted. The pope would obviously like to see a change in Iraq--as would the majority leader, as would the president. The question is not whether or not anyone wants a change in direction; all three leaders would prefer a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Iraq. The question is how best to achieve that end. The president favors a redoubled military effort; the majority leader, a phased withdrawal. The pope has offered no advice. It is possible that Benedict in fact believes that the United States should begin to draw down its forces in Iraq, but there is nothing in his Urbi et orbi to suggest this.
There are, however, a number of specific policies about which Pope Benedict has spoken at great length and with considerable sophistication. Now that he evidently believes it appropriate to invoke the moral authority of the "spiritual leader of more than 1 billion people," perhaps Sen. Reid will be interested in discussing Benedict's rather more pointed views on same-sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and abortion.
Christopher Levenick is a writer in Washington, D.C.