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The grand tour

Religion | The pope in his U.S. visit was specific in criticizing the church, general in his critique of culture and politics

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

NEW YORK-Papal grand tours are becoming almost ordinary. But no Protestant or other religious leader could possibly enjoy the level of attention bestowed upon Benedict XVI in mid-April during his first U.S. pilgrimage as pope. President Bush attended the airport arrival-an honor he has granted no previous dignitary-and hosted a White House ceremony on what was Benedict's 81st birthday. Vice President Dick Cheney was present for the airport farewell. The secular United Nations General Assembly listened to him respectfully, and mainstream media provided lavish coverage. Throughout, crowds were large and exuberant.

Benedict, a onetime university theologian, employed this extraordinary exposure to convey ideas of substance to the world, the American nation, and non-Catholics. However, his crucial messages were aimed at the huge but troubled U.S. Catholic flock, 23.9 percent of the population according to a Pew Forum poll (second to evangelical Protestants at 26.3 percent).

It was inevitable that Benedict would mention the U.S. church's worst scandal ever, over sexual molestation by priests. But he made this a recurring theme of the visits to Washington, D.C., and New York City. "I am deeply ashamed and we will do what is possible so this cannot happen again," Benedict vowed to journalists during the flight across the Atlantic. He then pursued the topic in sermons to the nation's bishops, to priests and sisters, and to the laity at a ballpark Mass.

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More dramatic was an unprecedented, emotion-laden event omitted from the official schedule, Benedict's 25-minute encounter with five abuse victims chosen by the Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the scandal. During the session Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley gave the pope a calligraphic book naming nearly 1,500 victims.

The abuse issue began festering in 1984 and exploded in 2002. Research for the U.S. bishops found that across 52 years about 4 percent of America's priests were named as molesters by 10,667 Catholics. Pope John Paul II never met with parishioners who were preyed upon, nor previously had Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger shepherded Vatican abuse policy before becoming pope three years ago.

At a Time magazine luncheon, the Vatican's highest-ranking American, Cardinal William Levada, insisted that no "broad base of bishops" is "guilty of aiding and abetting pedophiles." But during a demonstration that same afternoon outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, David Clohessy of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told WORLD, "Only the pope can deal with complicit bishops," and John Paul II and Benedict have penalized none "for ignoring or concealing abusers." He said the one possible exception is Cardinal Bernard Law, who was shifted from Boston to a Vatican sinecure (and was notably absent from Benedict's road retinue). Significantly, conservative Philip Lawler of CWNews.com likewise called upon Benedict to remove errant bishops.

Nonetheless, the U.S. bishops can take a bit of comfort from a Georgetown University poll they commissioned, showing that 72 percent of U.S. Catholics are "somewhat" or "very" satisfied with their leadership, up from 58 percent in 2004. As for Benedict, 82 percent expressed such satisfaction.

But there are signs of trouble in these percentages: 31.4 percent of Catholics attend church in a given week, 26 percent participate in the sacrament of reconciliation (formerly called penance) in a year, and 57 percent affirm the Catholic belief that "Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine" at Mass. The Pew Forum survey showed that fully a third of Americans raised Catholic no longer identify with their childhood church, while rising immigration means that Hispanics make up nearly a third of U.S. Catholics-and that fraction is growing.

Benedict's talk to Catholic educators from around the nation addressed a double whammy, the shrinking and financially pressed parochial school system and church-related colleges where Catholic fidelity has often eroded.

On parochial schools, the pope could do little more than cheerlead, pleading for more support, especially to help low-income families and neighborhoods. With colleges, despite years of Vatican effort it's hard to foresee much rollback among freewheeling academics on independent-minded campuses-and there's little the hierarchy can do about it.

Benedict's talk endorsed academic freedom but said using it to contradict church teaching "would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission." He stated that public witness to authoritative church teachings should shape "all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom." Dissent, "far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual." To Benedict, "authentic freedom" always involves "the certainty of truth" that resists secular pressures.

On external relations, the pope's major appearance was at UN headquarters in New York. Though popes perennially preach world peace, Benedict's message was that peace prospects depend upon the underlying factor of human rights, which must be seen as universal principles, "valid at all times and for all peoples."

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