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.
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."
As is typical with papal discourse, the pope required his UN audience to read between the lines. Were communist nations the target when he said religious believers must never be forced to deny God? Was President Bush's foreign policy in mind when he lamented a "crisis" as "the decisions of a few" supplant "multilateral" and "collective action by the international community"? And did Benedict refer to radical Islam when he criticized terrorism and the denial of human rights in the name of "religious outlooks"? Islamism also went unspecified when Benedict prayed at Ground Zero ("God of peace, bring Your peace to our violent world").
His words at the White House were similarly generalized, carefully sidestepping suggestions of papal displeasure over Iraq or hints about America's raging political campaign. Instead, he praised America as a land of faith, religious liberty, and the inalienable rights he later championed at the UN. While in the United States the pope also avoided contentious specifics on illegal immigration, merely asking that immigrants be welcomed and families kept together.
At the White House Bush, a Methodist, echoed Catholic concepts, saying that when "some treat life as something to be debased and discarded," America needs the pope's defense of life and critique of moral relativism. In his final New York sermon, Benedict rejected the "false dichotomy between faith and political life."
The pope broke no new ground during warm-hearted encounters with Jews and other non-Christians. More intriguing was his warning, at a session with non-Catholic Christians that included evangelicals, against relegating religion entirely to subjective personal experience, minimizing the faith's objective truth and doctrinal content.
Till now Benedict has been barely known to non-Catholic Americans, while Catholics have seen him as John Paul's doctrinal "Rottweiler" who disciplined Catholic liberals and denounced secularism.
The Benedict that Americans observed is no rock star in the mold of his predecessor. But this first modern pontiff to be fluent in English (albeit with a heavy German accent) has a theological mind for all Christians to reckon with. And with his quiet spiritual demeanor, warm smile, and congenial words, Benedict softened his prior image. Jesuit James Martin wrote on a New York Times blog that he's one liberal priest who found himself "feeling real admiration-and even affection-for the pope whose election I once lamented."
Of grave concern is the spread of a secularist ideology that undermines or even rejects transcendent truth. 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 (1 Peter 3:15). . . . [We must ask whether our witness] has not been attenuated by a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies, which, in alleging that science alone is "objective," relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling. . . . For Christians to accept this faulty line of reasoning would lead to the notion that there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes.
-Pope Benedict XVI in meeting with non-Catholic Christians
- All texts from Benedict in the United States are posted at: www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/ travels/2008/index_stati-uniti_en.htm