Pope Benedict has used the occasion of the official receipt of the credentials for the new Italian ambassador to the Holy See to issue a defence of the alliance of church and state, an arrangement facing increasing criticism in a plural, post-Christendom Europe.
The Letters of Credence of Antonio Zanardi Landi were presented on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of Italy, who is famous for his vow of poverty and for seeking to persuade a powerful Church to care for the poor rather than for its own wealth and status.
Some commentators see an irony in the fact that this was the day that the head of the world's 1.2 billion Roman catholics chose to praise the concordat, which critics claim gives the institutional Church vast privileges.
In his talk to the diplomat, however, the Pope referred to the "mutual collaboration" between Church and State "for the promotion of [hu]mankind and the good of the entire national community. In pursuing this goal," he added, "the Church does not aim to acquire power nor does she seek privileges or positions of economic and social advantage."
"[The Church's] only aim," he went on, "is to serve [hu]mankind, drawing inspiration, as the supreme norm of behaviour, from the words and example of Jesus Christ Who 'went about doing good and healing everyone.' Hence the Catholic Church asks to be considered for her specific nature, and to have the opportunity freely to carry out her special mission for the good, not only of her own faithful, but of all Italians."
Benedict XVI expressed the hope that collaboration between all components of Italian society may contribute "not only to carefully guarding the cultural and spiritual heritage that distinguishes [Italy] and that is an integral part of its history," but even more so that it may be "a stimulus to seek new ways to face the great challenges that characterize the post-modern age."
In this context the Pope mentioned "the defence of life, ... the protection of the rights of the individual and the family, the building of a united world, respect for creation and inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue."
After recalling that the year 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, the Pope pointed out that this date "could constitute a useful occasion for Italy to offer its own contribution to the creation of a just order in the international arena, at the center of which is ... respect for [hu]mankind, for his (sic) dignity and for his inalienable rights."
Quoting from his own Message for World Peace Day 2007, the Holy Father then went on to say that the Declaration of Human Rights "is regarded as a sort of moral commitment assumed by all mankind. There is a profound truth to this, especially if the rights described in the Declaration are held to be based not simply on the decisions of the assembly that approved them, but on man's very nature and his inalienable dignity as a person created by God."
"Italy," Pope Benedict concluded, "by virtue of its recent election as a member of the Council for Human Rights, and even more so for its own particular tradition of humanity and generosity, cannot but feel committed to the tireless construction of peace and the defence of the dignity of human beings and all their inalienable rights, including the right to religious freedom."
Progressive politicians, non-conformist faith groups and secularists have been critical of the concordat, a legacy of the post-Constantinian 'Christendom' era, when the church blessed the state in exchange for security and a recognised status and role in governance.