By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
There was a distinctively Austrian twist to Benedict’s speech to diplomats yesterday evening in Vienna’s Hofburg palace that has raised some eyebrows here. In his conclusion, the pope urged Austrians to feel responsibility for peoples and countries elsewhere, saying that Austria is “certainly not an enchanted island.”
That choice of phrase was not random. It reflects a common local reference to Austria as an “island of the blessed,” a bit of jargon that dates to the Cold War period, in which Austria was not absorbed into the Soviet sphere, but managed to remain a prosperous crossroads between East and West.
It’s not clear whether he realized it or, but in telling Austrians not to think of themselves this way, Benedict XVI was actually correcting one of his own predecessors: Pope Paul VI.
It was Paul VI who first referred to Austria as an “island of the blessed” in 1967, and the phrase subsequently entered the national consciousness.
Although Benedict XVI has repeatedly argued for interpreting developments in the church in terms of continuity with what came before, many Austrian Catholics quietly laughed that it’s tough to see much continuity in Benedict XVI effectively annulling a bit of papal praise that many of them have worn like a badge of honor for the past three decades.
Yesterday’s speech also whipped up a bit of local political mini-drama, reflecting the way that broad papal messages are always refracted, and sometimes distorted, through the lens of local circumstances.
In his address to diplomats, Benedict XVI argued that the right to life is the cornerstone of all human rights, making a strong call for opposition to abortion.
In the Austrian press, this was understood as an indirect criticism of the country’s current approach, under which abortion is technically illegal but the ban is not enforced during the first trimester of pregnancy. For much of day one of the trip, politicians and journalists were consumed by responding to what was perceived as a papal intervention in local affairs.
Several hours later, both the Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna made statements indicating that Benedict XVI had not actually intended to take any position on domestic politics, and that his speech should instead be understood at the level of basic values.