NEW YORK -- Pope Benedict XVI on Friday (April 18) strongly urged leaders from U.S. Christian churches to hold fast against "so-called `prophetic actions"' and to unify under traditional Christian teachings.
Though Benedict did not single out any particular action, the remark appeared to be an oblique reference to growing acceptance of homosexuality in U.S. churches, especially the election of an openly gay Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson in 2003. Many who supported the Robinson's election called it a "prophetic" witness for justice and inclusion, even as traditionalists -- and the Vatican -- saw it as unbiblical and damaging to church unity.
The pope also criticized Christian communities that bypass unified action "choosing instead to function according to the idea of `local options"' -- a phrase often invoke by those who want to reform church teachings even if the wider church won't follow.
He warned against actions that are "not always consonant with ... Scripture and Tradition," and said that "only by holding fast to sound teaching will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world."
The head of the U.S. Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, was invited but could not attend because of a previous commitment. Episcopal Bishop Mark Sisk of New York did attend and said he would be "surprised" if the pope was targetting U.S. Episcopalians.
"I don't think he was trying to send a shot acrosst he bow at a particular church," said Sisk, who greeted the pope personally. "This was not the place to try to do that."
The speech to Christian leaders came after Benedict arrived in New York on Friday morning and addressed the United Nations on the need to protect human rights and religious freedom around the world.
His speech to Protestant and Orthodox leaders was not the first time Benedict had injected himself into the controversy roiling the Episcopal Church. In 2003, while still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he sent a telegram expressing his "heartfelt prayers" to conservative Episcopalians gathered in Texas.
The pope also sounded his oft-repeated alarm that relativism -- the idea that truth is subjective -- is undermining Christianity from within, as well as in the wider culture, which makes it all the more important that Christian leaders hold fast to tradition.
"The very possibility of divine revelation, and therefore of Christian faith, is often placed into question by cultural trends widely present in academia, the mass media and public debate. For these reasons, a faithful witness to the Gospel is as urgent as ever. Christians are challenged to give a clear account of the hope that they hold," the pope said.
At the end of the ceremony at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, where Mass is still celebrated in the Benedict's native German tongue, the pope greeted a more than a dozen evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestant and black church leaders.
The meeting with ecumenical leaders comes less than a year after the Vatican reasserted its claims to primacy, calling other Christian churches defective and saying Protestant denominations are not churches "in the proper sense."
Many Protestants in the U.S. had questioned the timing and intent of the Vatican's statement. Among them was the Rev. Donald McCoid, who heads ecumenical and interfaith outreach for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
McCoid attended the ecumenical service Friday, and said beforehand that many Catholics and Protestant leaders had already talked through their differences on the document.
"If I thought it was geared toward Protestant and Orthodox churches that would be different," McCoid said. "But I think it was really intended to state to Catholics: this is where we are."
Earlier in the day, Benedict visited Park East Synagogue, the first time a pope has visited a Jewish house of worship in the U.S. The brief stop was billed as a "informal visit ... to express his good will toward the local Jewish community as they prepare for Passover," according to Monsignor David Malloy, the general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Earlier on Friday, Benedict told leaders at the United Nations that human rights are "inscribed on human hearts" and asked them to work together to eradicate violence and poverty and to care for the environment.
Benedict said "efforts must be redoubled" particularly to protect religious freedom and impoverished countries in Africa.
"A vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help to achieve this" Benedict said, "since recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of the heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism and war, and to promote justice and peace."
Speaking in English and French, the pope did not mention specific conflicts, such as Iraq or the Middle East, but laid an intellectual foundation for human rights based on justice and the dignity of all persons.
If sovereign nations are unable to gaurantee those rights, the pope said, "the international community must intervene."
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During his three days in Washington earlier this week, Benedict met President Bush at the White House and celebrated a public Mass for 46,000 at a baseball stadium.
The early stages of Benedict's six-day U.S. trip, however, have been dominated by his attention to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, which he has addressed every day since landing in the U.S. for his first trip as pontiff. On Thursday, the pope held a closed-door meeting with a small group of survivors at the Vatican embassy in Washington.
Benedict is the third pope to address the UN, after Paul VI in 1965 and John Paul II in 1979 and 1995. The Holy See, led by the pope, is a permanent observer at the world body, and is able to contribute to debates but does not have a vote.
The pope's address touched a wide range of topics, including climate change, the negative effects of globalization and the tendency of the global agenda to be "subordinated to the decisions of a few."