Vastly different issues confront every new pope. Yet only for the past century has foreign policy been such an integral part of the discussion. As evidenced by the coverage of the death and funeral of John Paul II, there is no other one person able to reach such a diverse and widespread group of people in a manner that transcends politics. Pope John Paul II created new expectations of active, global leadership for the pope. Catholics and non-Catholics alike will look to Pope Benedict XVI to help solve the problems facing the world today.
The new pope is controversial on several fronts, from his criticism of liberation theology – which advocates that the elimination of poverty and oppression become the central pillar of Catholic doctrine – to his sometimes reactionary views on Church doctrine, such as his belief in the primacy of Catholicism. While there are many important issues he will have to deal with effectively within the Church, there are three important foreign policy issues that governments across the world are currently facing, and for which he should be an effective advocate: eradicating poverty, promoting the responsibility to protect, and soothing Muslim-Christian tensions.
First, the new pope should play an important role in empowering the part of the world’s population that globalization is not yet helping – the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty. No consistent voice can be heard above the political rhetoric speaking for the poor in both developed and developing countries. Benedict XVI has the religious obligation to become an active and vocal champion of economic development and poverty reduction.
Second, the new pope should promote the emerging norm that all governments have the responsibility to protect the basic human rights of their citizens. The pope can pressure governments to offer protection not only of the lives of their citizens, but also of their basic freedoms – of religion, of speech, and to organize. He can, like John Paul II in Poland, empower citizens to expect more from their governments and to organize when they are not treated with basic human dignity. The pope must encourage the international community to safeguard the peoples of the world, regardless of borders, especially in cases of mass human rights violations, like those in Darfur today. As an actor on the world stage without political or hegemonic motivations, the pope can pressure reluctant countries to take action.
Finally, Benedict XVI must start to bring together Muslims and Christians. He can occupy an important niche in cultivating a discussion between Catholics and Muslims, further expanding John Paul II’s first footsteps. There are hot spots of tension between Muslims and Catholics all over the world. In Iraq, for instance, Sunni Muslims have targeted some Christian churches, and in Lebanon, Maronite Christians are under attack because of their opposition to Syrian influence. The next pope must talk to both the Christians and the Muslims in these and other countries to provoke a dialogue that leads to solutions. This dialogue could ultimately lead to a set of religious values held in common by all the world’s religions.
The Catholic Church has a reach far beyond that of any single government. Benedict XVI should be a leader who not only asks for Catholics to lead a life devoted to God, but who leads a church that is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. It must be one that practices what it preaches. The Catholic Church has become a global organization with global problems that it must address: Pope Benedict XVI has a chance to shape the future of the Catholic Church, and to shape the future of the world.
Brooke Lierman is the special assistant to the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.
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