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Pope Benedict's 'State of the World' address [Summary/Analysis]

January 09, 2012

In his annual speech to the Vatican diplomatic corps—the papal “State of the World” address—Pope Benedict XVI laid heavy emphasis on the continuing economic crisis, the uncertainties facing young people, the threats to the dignity of life and the family, violations of religious freedom, and dangers to the global environment.

In his January 9 address, the Pontiff expressed special concern about recent developments in Syria, the Holy Land, Iraq, Pakistan, and Nigeria. He spoke more generally about hostility toward the Christian faith in many parts of the world.

At the outset of his speech, the Holy Father reminded his listeners that the annual speech to the diplomatic corps is traditionally delivered during the Christmas season, as the faithful celebrate the light that the Nativity brought into the world. “Truly the world is gloomy wherever it is not brightened by God’s light!” he said. The Pope continued:

Truly the world is dark wherever men and women no longer acknowledge their bond with the Creator and thereby endanger their relation to other creatures and to creation itself. The present moment is sadly marked by a profound disquiet and the various crises--economic, political and social--are a dramatic expression of this.

After that opening Pope Benedict turned to “the grave and disturbing developments of the global economic and financial crisis.” He reminded the envoys of “the importance of its ethical dimension,” and insisted that a genuine solution to the financial crisis should be designed “not only in an effort to stem private losses or to shore up national economies, but to give ourselves new rules which ensure that all can lead a dignified life and develop their abilities for the benefit of the community as a whole.”

The economic problems of recent months, the Pope said, have had a particularly damaging effect on the prospects facing young people. The uncertainties of youth, he remarked, were a major factor in the “agitation which has affected various regions,” but especially the nations of the Middle East. Obviously referring to the Arab Spring uprisings, the Pope said that “initial optimism” about these popular movements has given way to concerns and uncertainties. What is clear, he said, is that “the best way to move forward is through the recognition of the inalienable dignity of each human person and of his or her fundamental rights.” The goal of building just and stable societies—“opposed to every form of unjust discrimination, particularly religious discrimination”—is more important than short-term electoral results, the Pope said.

Speaking in more specific terms about the Middle East, the Pope voiced his special worries about recent developments in Syria. He expressed satisfaction that Israeli and Palestinian officials will resume talks through the efforts of Jordanian mediators. And he added a note of concern about Iraq and “the attacks that have recently caused so much loss of life” there.

Pope Benedict reminded the diplomats that his World Day of Peace message, formally released on January 1, had drawn a tight connection between the quest for peace and education of rising generations. Education, he said, must begin in the family, and so a healthy society protects family life. “This is not a simple social convention,” the Pope stressed, “but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.”

Continuing on that theme, the Pope emphasized the need to protect the dignity of all human life. He recalled the message that he had delivered during a visit to Croatia, where he said that “openness to life is a sign of openness to the future.” In that context, the Pope said that he was pleased with two recent developments in Europe: a decision by the European Court of Justice against patenting the products of embryonic stem cells; and a resolution by the Council of Europe condemning sex-selection abortions. The Pope added:

More generally, and with particular reference to the West, I am convinced that legislative measures which not only permit but at times even promote abortion for reasons of convenience or for questionable medical motives compromise the education of young people and, as a result, the future of humanity.

Any educational program aimed at promoting world peace must instill respect for religious freedom, the Pope said. In a tribute to a Christian political leader who was killed for his defense of religious freedom, the Pope said: “I cannot raise this subject without first paying tribute to the memory of the Pakistani Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, whose untiring battle for the rights of minorities ended in his tragic death.”

“Sadly, we are not speaking of an isolated case,” the Pope went on. He lamented that Christians are subject to violence and overt discrimination in many nations today. Moreover, he said, “In other parts of the world, we see policies aimed at marginalizing the role of religion in the life of society, as if it were a cause of intolerance rather than a valued contribution to education in respect for human dignity, justice and peace.”

Here too the Pope paused to acknowledge a few positive developments, including a decision by the government of Georgia to recognize religious minorities and a decision by the European Court of Human Rights affirming the right to display a crucifix in Italian classrooms.

Turning his attention to Africa, the Pontiff said that the goal of peaceful cooperation “remains distant.” He listed the conflicts that are particular cause for concern, beginning with the recent rash of attacks on Christian churches in Nigeria and including “the aftermath of the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, the continuing instability in the Great Lakes region and the humanitarian emergency in the countries of the Horn of Africa.” Pope Benedict renewed his appeal to international leaders to provide aid to the millions of people facing starvation, especially in Somalia.

Finally the Pope said that proper education “cannot fail to foster respect for creation.” He said: “Environmental protection and the connection between fighting poverty and fighting climate change are important areas for the promotion of integral human development.”

Reactions to the Pope’s address varied, as did reporting on the speech. The Italian news agency ANSA reported accurately that the Pope laid heavy emphasis on the worldwide economic crisis. Reuters, on the other hand, devoted most of its analysis to the question of same-sex marriage: a topic that the Pope did not mention. Andrea Tornielli rightly observed that the Holy Father was especially forceful in condemning persecution of Christians. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter remarked that in his passage praising European decisions to ban the patent protection for human embryonic tissues and to condemn sex-selection abortion, the Pope was taking the same position as leftist groups like Greenpeace—albeit for very different reasons. (And most conservative groups would strongly endorse those policies as well.) The Australian ambassador to the Holy See, speaking with Vatican Radio, made the more general observation that the papal address was a “very sober message,” appropriate to “a very sobering world.”

Pope Benedict delivered the address in the Sala Regia of the apostolic palace. As he arrived to address the assembled diplomats, the Pontiff was officially welcomed by Alejandro Emilio Valladares Lanza, the ambassador from Honduras and dean of the Vatican diplomatic corps. He also received a greeting from the vice-dean, Jean-Claude Michel of Monaco.

Before delivering his substantive remarks, the Pope acknowledged those greetings with thanks, and sent his own special greetings to a number of different nations:

  • to Malaysia, the latest country to enter into full diplomatic ties with the Holy See;
  • to Azerbaijan, Montenegro, and Mozambique, with whom the Vatican has negotiated new diplomatic accords;
  • to Croatia, San Marino, Spain, Germany, and Benin, the countries that the Holy Father visited on his foreign voyages during 2011;
  • to the many countries whose heads of state or heads of government visited the Pope at the Vatican or at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo during the year;
  • to the Latin American countries that celebrated the bicentenary of their independence in 2011;
  • to Mexico and Cuba, the countries that he has already announced his plan to visit in March 2012; and
  • to Southern Sudan, the most recent addition to the world’s community of independent nations—where, the Pope added, he hoped border tensions can be peacefully resolved.

The Holy See now has full diplomatic relations with 179 countries, as well as special diplomatic ties with the European Union, the Knights of Malta, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.


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