Pope Benedict, to his credit, repeatedly challenges the old canard that religious divisions are a primary source of societal violence. Most recently, the pope told diplomats accredited to the Holy See that true religion reconciles men and women with God.
Yes, he continued, there is a "baneful religious fanaticism" that gives rise to violence in many of the world's trouble spots. But true religious faith is the best protection against relativism - the belief that there are no moral truths beyond what men and women manufacture.
Relativism and the lust for power are the main sources of political violence. "It is precisely man's forgetfulness of God, and his failure to give him glory, which gives rise to violence," the pope said in his Jan. 7 talk.
Political theologian William Cavanaugh argues that the so-called "wars of religion" following the Reformation were, in fact, wars in which secular rulers extended their power by reducing religion to private belief with no authority in the public realm. The result was the dominance of the nation state and the sharp diminishment of the role of religious faith in societal decision-making.
In their subservient position in relation to the state, churches and individual Christians have bought into this separation of religion and politics. Religion too often is diminished to an interior "spirituality." Says Cavanaugh: "The modern Church splits the body from the soul and purchases freedom of religion by handing the body over to the state."
When faith and the Church are de-politicized, the secular state becomes a force that faces no resistance in its quest for complete power. Blessed Pope John Paul II named this situation clearly when he stated: "If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism."
The propaganda machines say the state protects the people from the chaos of religious division, and that democracy is the friend of human rights. Yet, the "rights" that are protected are so often rights to consume, destroy and kill. We have a right to ruin the environment for future generations so that profits may be maximized now, a right to any form of intimate living relationship with no regard for the needs of children, and a right to kill the unborn and (soon?) the sick and elderly.
This coalition of individualism and corporate power has created a façade of comfort and ease in front of the thinly disguised totalitarianism. Disguised or not, it is a system of violence. If we are to end the violence, we will give glory to God by making absolute values superior to the lust for power.