Pope in U.S.
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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

David Gibson
Roman pope, American culture

As with John Paul before him, Benedict could use language lessons


The gulf between the cultures of the Vatican and America is well-documented but perhaps never so apparent -- or embarrassing to us Yanks -- as it is on a papal trip. Foreign travel for the popes is a bit like a reality television show that takes an august personage (a Roman pontiff, in this case) and places him in bizarre circumstances to see what will happen. Hilarity ensues. And journalists like me are there to record the results. Except that the joke is often on us.

In October 1995, for example, John Paul II arrived for a U.S. tour the day after the O.J. Simpson trial ended in an acquittal, stopping the news cycle in its tracks and, in a surreal scenario, pre-determining the lead question at every papal encounter. Similarly, a few years later in Havana, I was sitting on a tall stool on a precarious balcony above the Cuban capital fighting a bad case of cotton mouth as I tried to answer questions from CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about the history unfolding before us -- the first day of John Paul’s pastoral visit to this communist island and his meeting with Fidel Castro, a holdout from a Cold War that the Polish pope had helped to end. I needn’t have been so anxious. A short time into the broadcast, word came through our earpieces that back in Washington, Ken Starr was pursuing charges that Bill Clinton had sex of some sort with Monica Lewinsky and asked her to lie about it under oath. Forced to choose, as one report put it, “between sin and salvation,” there was no contest. Network anchors abandoned the island as if it were sinking, and the papal visit drifted off the media radar.

-- CNS/Nancy Wiechec

Edras Segovia cleans ceiling tiles in the Crypt Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington March 4. Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to meet with U.S. bishops there April 16.

Whatever our discomfort at such moments, John Paul knew the rules of the game, and when they worked for him, he could play off his own celebrity to point to a greater good. When they didn’t, or when protests overwhelmed even his charms, he could shrug it off. “I am accustomed to that,” he once said about demonstrations. “It would not be normal not having that -- especially in America.” The rest of the Roman curia -- including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- did not view the mosh pit that is America’s public square with such equanimity.

Now that Ratzinger himself is pope and embarking on his first journey to the United States as pontiff, it would be hard to convince him that much about our attention-deficit culture has improved since John Paul’s time. And who would try? As Benedict XVI touches down in mid-April, gazillions of viewers will be transfixed by the finals of “American Idol” (great name, eh, Your Holiness?) and everyone else will be focused on the increasingly nasty presidential primaries (at least for the Democrats) to see if Pennsylvania can finally deliver some clarity when it votes two days after Benedict returns to Rome.

Not an auspicious setting, especially for a man whose relatively limited experience of America hasn’t always been pretty. In 1988, for example, Ratzinger was in New York to lecture on biblical criticism but was interrupted by gay activists who, according to his host, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “waved their pink triangles while screaming pleasantries such as ‘Sieg Heil!’ ‘Nazi Ratzy!’ and ‘Inquisitor Go Home!’ ” Ratzinger later spoke about his traumatic experience with student rebels in 1968 (while he was at the University of Tübingen) and the indispensability of civility in human relations. The next day, the headlines read, “Gays Protest Vatican Biggy.” The cardinal chuckled at the “Biggy” moniker, Neuhaus recalled, but Ratzinger’s intimates said that such incidents rankled. Fortunately, Ratzinger’s four other visits to the United States were more circumscribed. He lectured in Dallas in 1984 and Washington in 1990, and traveled to Dallas in 1991 and San Francisco in 1999 to meet with bishops and doctrinal officials.

Benedict is a paradox in that he relishes the clash of ideas -- he has been at the center of every significant church controversy in the last generation -- yet dislikes personal confrontation. Part of that can be traced to Benedict’s dual vocations as a churchman and an academic theologian who prefers the pulpit and lectern to noisy debate. He is an intellectual whose talks are informed by intensive study and conversations with other bishops; indeed, he is most at ease among fellow clerics, and as pope he often meets with Italian priests for conversations that are expansive and enlightening.

But these exchanges are not terribly challenging, nor does his network go far beyond the clerical ranks or conservative circles. And they are hardly in tune with an American culture that was born in rebellion, fed by competition, traumatized by civil war and energized by civil rights. Today’s culture, left and right, is a product of the 1960s just as today’s Catholic church -- left and right -- is a product of the Second Vatican Council. In America, as in the church, honest conversation and the free expression of ideas and, yes, emotions, messy as they are, remain central to our pilgrimage. And for a church racked by scandal and frustrated by institutional stonewalling, open communication is more important than ever. In fact, it could be argued that the lack of discourse has left the church polarized and enervated by a diminished civility. Catholic culture has assumed the worst aspects of American culture because the church could not accommodate the best of America’s traditions. No matter the venue, a straitened view of public discourse that lectures from on high can only be answered by shouts from below.

It should, and could, work the other way around, with the church as a model. In one of the most memorable yet rarely cited episodes in American church history, John Paul engaged in a “structured” dialogue with a representative of the nation’s priests during a 1987 visit to the United States. It was a particularly difficult era between Rome and America, and Fr. Frank McNulty, a widely respected priest from New Jersey, was delegated to address the pope. His talk was a model of sincere, measured, yet frank talk about the problems facing the priesthood and the church in the United States, and the need for reforms that would include a discussion of neuralgic topics such as mandatory celibacy.

“If priests could open up their hearts and tell you of their priesthood,” McNulty told John Paul, “they could not do so without some controversial questions surfacing. In our country there is an attitude toward questions; it comes from our heritage, those historical events which help make us the way we are. We treasure freedom -- freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of expression. Questions brought our nation into being. In such settings people do not run from questions about what they believe and how they live out those beliefs. Priests know well that there are no easy answers but want to face the questions with honesty.”

“Your Holiness,” he concluded, “our prayer is that today’s words will be the deepening of an honest, ongoing, heart-to-heart dialogue.” McNulty was interrupted 13 times by thunderous applause. John Paul responded by reasserting traditional teachings, and he added an enigmatic remark: “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” Whatever that meant, the plea for dialogue was a non-starter, and the problems McNulty spoke of have only worsened.

When I called McNulty recently to reminisce about that talk, he told me that the New Jersey parish where he helps out on Sundays arranged to show a video of his exchange with the pope on the 20th anniversary of the event. The church hall was packed, and when the video ended, the gathering gave McNulty a standing ovation. People were shocked to see such an exchange, and some asked for the tape so they could show their children, who would be even more surprised. “It was a fascinating experience,” McNulty said. “It just shows that such a thing is still very much needed.”

Don’t expect a repeat during Benedict’s visit. The job of a pope, like any bishop, is to teach, to sanctify and to govern. Benedict enjoys the first two, but (like John Paul) he has never billed himself as an administrator. He prefers to leave the grunt work to his bishops, but they could certainly use the visit as a steppingstone to broader conversations. The venues and models already exist, in forums that grew out of the sexual abuse crisis, like the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management or university-based initiatives like Boston College’s “Church in the 21st Century” program. There is also the more venerable -- and viable -- Common Ground Initiative, an effort to address what Fr. Donald Cozzens aptly calls the “sacred silence” of denial in the church.

Then there was the 2002 meeting in Dallas, when in the white heat of scandal, the bishops invited lay leaders, abuse victims and outside experts to speak to the hierarchy. That was historic, but it was dialogue at the point of a gun (and without the voice of a single priest) and never repeated. Sadly, it seems to take an acute crisis to create a small opening, and that is quickly filled with anger that has been pent up for too long. To do something similar under less trying circumstances, and on a regular basis, would be true to Benedict’s personal, pastoral core, and to the rule of the pope’s namesake, St. Benedict of Nursia, who said the entire community should be called together to discuss anything of importance, because the youngest often display the greater wisdom.

David Gibson, a freelance writer living in New York, is author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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