By Douglas A. Sylva

Pope Benedict’s address to the U.N. General Assembly possessed no
obvious and immediate Regensburg passage, no startling phrase to shake
observers from comfortable assumptions and to foster debate about the
institution. This was all the more troubling for those who know–and who
know that Pope Benedict knows–that for all the good it may do on
humanitarian grounds, the United Nations is a primary political
opponent of the pope in his effort to defend three bedrock values,
values he himself has labeled as nonnegotiable: the protection of human
life from conception to natural death, the protection of marriage as a
union between a man and a woman, and the protection of the right of
parents to control the education of their children. None received
explicit mention in his speech.

In fact, some passages in the speech could be interpreted as a papal
blessing, of sorts, of increased authority for the United Nations: “The
international community must intervene” in domestic affairs when
sovereign nations cannot or will not protect the rights of their
citizens; the “multilateral consensus” cannot be “subordinated to the
decisions of a few”; the United Nations has the “responsibility to
protect” all of humanity. Could it be that Pope Benedict is an
uncritical admirer of the U.N.?

Of course not. The truth of the matter is that, such statements
notwithstanding, the entire address should be considered a profound and
extended type of Regensburg moment. On reflection, what Benedict called
for, even if the awed diplomats in attendance may have missed it, was
no less than the international application of the American concept of
the separation of church and state, a concept that Benedict considers
essential if the international community is to be predicated upon the
inherent dignity of the human person. At the very deepest level, his
apparently pro-U.N. speech turned out to be a stunning endorsement of
the United States’ understanding of religion in the public sphere, and
the need to apply that understanding to international dialogue. This is
the case even though no news reports noticed; it is the case even
though “America” or the “United States” does not appear once in the

To begin, it is important to note what did appear in the speech, and
what appeared repeatedly: The pope thought it necessary to refer to the
concept of human dignity nine separate times. Why? Human dignity is a
type of shorthand for the recognition of the proper status of the human
person. What is that status? According to Benedict, the human person is
“the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for

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