Pope Benedict XVI used his address at the World Day of Peace gathering in Assisi to reflect on how faith brings peace to the world and how its abuse can lead to violence.
“It is a case of being together on a journey towards truth, a case of taking a decisive stand for human dignity and a case of common engagement for peace against every form of destructive force,” the Pope said to world religious leaders in the Umbrian hill town.
The summit, entitled “Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace,” was convened to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first World Day for Peace, first held by Pope John Paul II in 1986.
Pope Benedict charted how the nature of the threat of global violence has changed in those 25 years with the decline of the Cold War. And yet, he noted, “violence as such is potentially ever present and it is a characteristic feature of our world.”
He said that today’s post-Cold War “world of freedom” “has proved to be largely directionless, and not a few have misinterpreted freedom as somehow including freedom for violence.”
This violence has manifested itself in two seemingly contradictory fashions—religious violence and anti-religious violence.
The most obvious manifestation of the former, he suggested, is terrorism where “in the eyes of the perpetrators, the overriding goal of damage to the enemy justifies any form of cruelty.” Thus, “everything that had been commonly recognized and sanctioned in international law as the limit of violence is overruled.” In this case, “religion does not serve peace, but is used as justification for violence.”
This plays into the hands of the “post-Enlightenment critique of religion” which maintains that “religion is a cause of violence and in this way it has fueled hostility towards religions.” At the same time, the Pope added, this analysis is not entirely without historical foundation.
“As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith,” he said.
“We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature.”
It is therefore the task of all Christian leaders “to purify the religion of Christians again and again from its very heart, so that it truly serves as an instrument of God’s peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans.”
Yet the removal of God from human society, the Pope observed, has never resulted in harmony and peace but, instead, the “denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds,” because mankind no longer recognizes “any criterion or any judge above himself.”
“The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence,” he stated.
Such God-less violence is not only true of state-sponsored atheism but also of modern secularized societies where “the worship of mammon, possessions and power is proving to be a counter-religion, in which it is no longer man who counts but only personal advantage.” One obvious but specific example of this, he said, is the illegal drugs trade into which many are “seduced and destroyed” both “physically and spiritually.”
“Force comes to be taken for granted,” in many parts of the world, and so “peace is destroyed and man destroys himself in this peace vacuum.”
Finally, Pope Benedict turned his comments to rise of agnosticism in the modern world. For the first time, the Assisi gathering involved atheist and agnostic representatives.
Agnostics, he said, are people “to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God.” While they do not simply assert “there is no God,” they still suffer from his absence and yet, said the Pope, they are “inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness.”
Their presence in society can blunt the “false certainty” of militant atheists but “they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property,” such that they would “feel vindicated in using force against others,” he said.
Pope Benedict also acknowledged that the agnostic’s search for God can sometimes be hindered by the behavior of religious believers, “so all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.”
The Pope concluded by assuring all gathered that “the Catholic Church will not let up in her fight against violence, in her commitment for peace in the world.”