Papal Visit
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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

-- Getty Images/Mario Tama

Pope Benedict XVI commemorative items are seen in St. Patrick’s Cathedral April 9 in New York. The pope will arrive in the city on April 18.
Upbeat pope to peddle basics

Benedict will plant seeds on visit to U.S., raising this question: What will he reap?


Pope Benedict XVI’s April 15-20 trip to Washington and New York will be in some ways his most challenging road show to date, one that suggests a range of contrasts to underscore the drama: Cerebral pontiff meets a sound-bite culture. A Eurocentric introvert confronts a wildly diverse American population. Visionary who thinks in centuries comes to the home of the drive-through window. Apostle of unchanging truth wades into the ultimate consumer society, where “have it your way” is more or less a national motto.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has not turned into a pope cut out to take the country by storm.

It’s not that Americans dislike Benedict. Perhaps because he hasn’t conformed to Darth Vader-esque stereotypes floated at the time of his election three years ago, the pope’s ratings are surprisingly strong. A recent Marist College poll found that 58 percent of Americans have either a “favorable” or “very favorable” view of him, as opposed to just 13 percent who see him negatively. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life likewise found that 52 percent of Americans regard the pope favorably.

Yet to some extent, those ratings rest on sand. The Pew Forum also found that 80 percent of Americans, including a remarkable two-thirds of American Catholics, say they know “just a little, or nothing at all” about this pope -- despite two major encyclicals, seven foreign trips, high drama in relations with both Islam and Judaism, and a host of other initiatives since Benedict’s election in April 2005.

The reality is that for most Americans, Benedict XVI is not so much controversial as he is invisible.

Among the nation’s nearly 70 million Catholics, there are certainly enough papal devotees to ensure large and enthusiastic crowds. Officials in New York, for example, report more than 200,000 requests for just 57,000 tickets to an April 20 Mass at Yankee Stadium. Yet the pope is not coming just to play to his base, but also to reach out to marginal Catholics, to other Christians and followers of other faiths, and to all Americans of goodwill -- many of whom, at least so far, seem almost oblivious to his message.

In that light, the key question may be whether Benedict can translate his poll numbers into attention span -- and, if so, how Americans will respond to what they hear.

The basics, with a positive spin

When Benedict lands at Andrews Air Force Base April 15, it will mark the ninth papal trip here, pulling the United States into a tie with Poland for the most-visited country outside Italy by modern popes. That’s testament to Vatican perceptions of both the geostrategic importance of the United States, and the key role of the American church in global Catholic affairs.

Over six days, Benedict XVI will have a closed-door session with President George W. Bush, celebrate public Masses in Washington’s National Park and Yankee Stadium, pray and talk with U.S. bishops, meet with leaders of other Christian bodies and other faiths, speak to the heads of Catholic universities and diocesan schools, hold a youth rally, and visit Ground Zero -- all in addition to an April 18 address to the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Here’s a hint of what Americans might expect to hear:

  • For people of the United States, Benedict’s top note may well be appreciation for the religious vitality of American society, in contrast to the malaise enervating Christianity in Europe.
  • For the American Catholic church, Benedict’s pitch is likely to be some version of “affirmative orthodoxy,” meaning a strong defense of traditional Catholic teaching and practice, presented in the most positive fashion possible. Benedict has been determined to put his accent on what the church is for rather than what it’s against. (This suggests that anyone expecting the pope to read the riot act is likely to be disappointed.)
  • At the United Nations, the pope is likely to take note of the Vatican’s top diplomatic concerns, including the war in Iraq and tensions in the Middle East. More deeply, Benedict will almost surely stress the need for a global moral consensus, rooted in the universality of human nature and open to spiritual wisdom, as a foundation for legal protection of human rights and dignity.

If Benedict holds to form, his focus will fall on the pastoral basics: the Eucharist, the centrality of Christ, prayer and devotion, service to others. Admirers say his genius lies not in innovation, but the rich and thoughtful way he presents such timeless themes; critics worry that Benedict is preaching to the choir.

Although the pope is arriving in the midst of a heated political season, both he and his handlers will strive to stay above the political fray. His social commentary, they say, is unlikely to give a decisive boost to one side or another.

In that light, the real drama may be not so much what the pope says, but how it’s spun. Machinery suited to spewing out partisan interpretations is already in place.

The McCain campaign, for example, has announced formation of a “National Catholics for McCain Committee.” Both the Obama and Clinton campaigns have appointed Catholic advisers, and recently a “Catholic Democrats” operation, based in Boston, was launched to counter McCain’s Catholic outreach. Any political benefits deriving from the pope’s visit may accrue to the group that does the best job of capturing the microphone.

Papal spokespersons, with their penchant for nuance, unsurprisingly insist that efforts to read Benedict’s message in a partisan key miss the point.

“The visit should be seen and interpreted in the spirit with which the pope himself comes, and not be instrumentalized,” said Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States.

Whether such nuance will survive the sausage-grinder of election season, however, remains to be seen.

No magic papal wand

No papal visit could resolve overnight all the problems facing Catholicism in America, and on this go-round even some urgent challenges are likely to draw just glancing references.

This papal visit to the United States will be the first since the sexual abuse crisis erupted in 2001. Yet Benedict passed on a proposal that he go to Boston to tackle the crisis head-on, and so far has revealed no plan to meet with victims.

Advisers insist the pope will not bury his head.

“He’s not the kind of man who hides from difficulties,” said Sambi, who predicted that Benedict will place “a strong emphasis on the need to go out from such situations, to move forward.”

It’s anything but clear, however, that Americans scarred by the crisis will be satisfied by a papal call to “move on.”

Likewise, it doesn’t seem that Benedict will present any new blueprint for coping with the American church’s core demographic and social challenge, which is rapid “Hispanicization,” occurring especially across a broad swath of the nation’s South and West. The U.S. bishops currently estimate that 39 percent of American Catholics are Hispanic, and by midcentury Hispanics may well be a majority. The pope has already acknowledged the growing importance of Hispanics in the U.S. Catholic mix by appointing a cardinal to Texas, the state’s first. (See cover story.)

In some ways that’s good news for the church, especially in light of a recent Pew Forum study indicating that but for immigration, Catholicism would be losing ground in America’s competitive religious marketplace. Yet as American Catholicism evolves toward a bilingual, bicultural church, there’s also the risk of an ecclesiastical Quebec -- two distinct language groups in a standoff -- rivals rather than partners.

Benedict is expected to urge American society to welcome immigrants. Beyond that, however, he’ll probably leave it up to American Catholics themselves to figure out what an integrated church would look like. The pope’s presence itself may be a nudge in the direction of integration, a reminder to Catholics of their unity in faith despite ethnic and linguistic differences.

Finally, it’s unlikely that Benedict’s trip will directly address the fractures between liberals and conservatives that still produce considerable heartburn, at least among the Catholic chattering classes.

One intriguing finding from the Pew Forum suggests that Benedict may be slowly chipping away at this great divide. Eight months ago, 68 percent of American Catholics regarded this pope as conservative, while now it’s 58 percent. Among Americans overall, 56 percent of Americans defined him as “conservative,” while today it’s 45 percent. These results hint that Benedict’s “affirmative orthodoxy” may be gradually positioning his message beyond ideological categories.

Benedict XVI thinks against a long arc of time, resisting the allure of immediate results. As he said last summer in a session with priests from northern Italy, “Statistics are not our divinity.”

For that reason, the pope will probably be more interested during his six days in America in planting seeds rather than making waves. For a divided, sometimes demoralized, yet still dynamic Catholic church in the United States, the question is whether that will be enough.

On the Web
John L. Allen Jr. will be traveling on the papal plane with Benedict XVI and filing daily reports at He will be doing commentary for CNN and other outlets. Also, listen in each day to a brief chat between Allen and an NCR editor at

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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