ope Benedict XVI's historic visit to the United States has come at a critical time for the Roman Catholic Church.
Though the Church is almost 2,000 years old with more than 1.1 billion adherents across the globe, it is mired in crisis.
When the white smoke puffed from the ancient chimney of the Sistine Chapel and it was announced “Urbi et Orbi” that an unassuming, 78-year-old German cardinal was to take the seat of St. Peter, pundits suggested Benedict XVI was simply a caretaker, the last “European Pope.”
But the Pope's visit to the U.S. — and the three years of his papacy so far — suggest that this Pope is anything but a place holder.
Indeed, Benedict XVI is a crusader who is challenging Europe and the West's seemingly ineluctable slide toward secularism.
In his “Mission America,” the Pope must buck up a Church that appears to be on the sametrajectory as the Catholic Church in Europe: Massive declines in Mass attendance, sex-abuse scandals, the diminishing importance of Catholic education, and an increasing number of the faithful who reject Church doctrine on many important issues have clouded the Church on both fronts.
The internal crisis of the Catholic Church is more worrisome considering the Church's globalstruggle with Islam. Once the center of Christendom, Old Europe finds itself hollow as Islam grows in power. In Catholic France, for example, the Muslim population has been estimated to be between 5 million and 6 million, and given current birth rates, it is possible that in 25 years France will have a Muslim majority.
Adding to that intrinsic challenge is the widening influence of Islam throughout Africa and Asia.
This Pope, like John Paul II, sees the importance of the American Catholic Church on several levels.
First, as the cultural leader of the West, the U.S. influence is far disproportionate to its population.
Second, as the world's last global superpower, American political hegemony can help the Church's global efforts.
The aftermath of the Pope's visit may be the most telling. Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, has ignored the zeitgeist of the times to adapt, accommodate, and to modernize.
Some Vatican watchers see no coincidence that the papal visit coincides with the U.S. presidential elections. Telling this year will be if the Church moves to enforce — as Cardinal Ratzinger has called for in the past — a ban on granting Holy Communion to Catholic political candidates who espouse a pro-choice position on abortion.
As a rule, popes have tried to avoid involving themselves in local politics, and some Vatican watchers were surprised that Benedict did agree to break long-standing protocol and come to the U.S. during a presidential election year, although the actual impetus for the trip was an invitation from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Benedict scheduled an address to the U.N. on April 18.
Observers speculated that Pope Benedict's six-day American tour would highlight nonreligious issues, and that his remarks would not likely be directly applicable to the race for the Oval Office. As Joseph Bottum, editor of the influential Catholic magazine First Things, told Newsmax: “This is one of the least political popes we've had in ages. It's hard to see any direct political impact at all.”
Asked what the Pope may speak about in his appearance at the U.N., Bottum said some rumors are “Slavery, abortion, and refugees. Possibly Third-World debt.”
Those are all things he may discuss with President Bush as well. But as one Vatican correspondent said, the Pope “will not be following talking points from the White House!”
If there is hullabaloo over politics during the Pope's apostolic journey, it will most likely be with regard to Church politics. As Francis X. Rocca, Rome correspondent for Religion News Service, said in an interview with Newsmax before the Pope's visit: “As we know from the case of [his speech at] Regensburg, Germany [where he set off violent reactions by quoting a disparaging statement about the prophet Muhammad], and many other examples, Benedict doesn't speak in sound bites or worry that his sometimes specialized language might be misunderstood by many. I'd say there's good chance he will say something controversial during his U.S. visit. Then we can all get down to speculating as to whether it was a 'blunder' or a deliberate challenge to the conventional wisdom.”
That he would disquiet some American Catholics over religious matters, however, is almost certain, since the American Church suffers from some of the same crises as does the Catholic Church throughout most of Europe, and it has ever since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
But in a February open letter to those tasked with planning Pope Benedict's American journey, Russell Shaw, Catholic author and Washington, D.C. resident, wrote, “I admit that I have no great expectations for this trip if it goes as such things usually do.” He refers to the likelihood that actual conditions in the American Church will be hidden from the Pope “behind [an] ecclesiasticalPotemkin Village façade,” and cites as evidence data that suggest the American Church is in crisis (See “Troubles” sidebar above): A survey in 2005 found that 76 percent of Catholics thought someone could be a good Catholic without going to church every Sunday. Other elements of Catholic belief and practice also fared poorly. Three out of four said good Catholics needn't observe the teaching on contraception; two-thirds said the same of having their marriages blessed by the Catholic Church and accepting the teaching on divorce and remarriage; 58 percent took the same view of giving time or money to the parish and also of following Church teaching on abortion. Nearly 1 in 4 held that a good Catholic needn't believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.
These data, however, do not include the most damning statistic of all: According to a study by the John Jay College of Justice, from 1950 through 2002 more than 4,000 priests have been accused of sexually abusing more than 10,000 people. Settlements with the victims, more than 80 percent of whom were male (most of them teenagers), have cost the Church more than $500 million.
Perhaps the greatest problem the Pope will confront in America is the one that haunts the Church in Europe. That is, Catholics are sliding into what is known in the U.S. as the phenomenon of “cafeteria Catholics” — the nominal believers who pick and choose from among the Church's teachings, take ample helpings of whatever they like, and pass over whatever is not to their liking.
Back in 2005, Pope Benedict addressed what he called the “central problem of our faith today” with these remarks: “Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires.”
This is not just a problem among laypeople but also among priests and nuns, which is why the Pope scheduled meetings in America to focus on them, along with those who influence young people: educators from America's Catholic schools and colleges.
For many conservative and traditionalist Catholics, the confusion in the Church is directly attributable to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), but the Pope disagrees. It was not the Council itself, he believes, but misinterpretations of the Council's many documents that are the problem.
That may be, but “American Catholics, be they Latinos [in New York] or African-Americans in Atlanta, or those of Irish, Italian or Polish ancestry in Boston and Baltimore, have come to accept that being Catholic means living with inconsistency,” says The New York Times, which goes on to explain that Catholics are thoroughly assimilated Americans, whose “views on social and moral issues [have come] to mirror those of other Americans.” The Pope will certainly have plenty to say about that.
Benedict was never expected to directly address the November elections during his visit to the U.S., but he surely knows that American politics are important to American Catholics, and that American Catholics are politicallydivided.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently released a centrist guide for voters in 2008, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which asks voters to keep Church teaching in mind in evaluating candidates in November.
Other Catholic groups are less reticent in their advocacy. The conservative organization Catholic Answers offers “A Voters Guide for Serious Catholics,” and the more liberal Center for Concern offers its own pamphlet: “Voting for the Common Good.” But the two have little in common.
“Catholics must learn how to vote — not just as citizens but as Catholics too,” the Catholic Answers guide insists, judging candidates on their positions and eliminating from consideration “any candidate who is wrong on any of these issues”: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, and gay marriage — all of which Catholic Answers opposes.
Befitting its less traditional sensibilities, Center for Concern urges liberal Catholics to become involved “actively in the political process to address the nation's problems.”
The Center's agenda focuses on climate change, healthcare, poverty, immigration, peace, and abortion.
That both groups mention abortion does not mean they share similar approaches to that touchstone issue, however.
In addition to their stark political divisions, American Catholics display profound spiritual contrasts as well. On one hand, America's 70 million Catholics make the United States the world's third largest Catholic nation (after Brazil and Mexico), although much credit for that distinction rests with recent immigrants — legal and illegal — from south of the Rio Grande.
But observance of the faith among Catholics has been in sharp decline. As Robert Royal, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Faith and Reason Institute, said, “Only about a third of Catholics actually practice their faith.” Other experts say the figure is closer to a fifth.
Catholics may comprise more than a quarter of the U.S. population, but there are no Catholic mega-churches and you will rarely have trouble finding a parking spot for Sunday Mass. But from the first Mass said in Florida in the 16th century to Pope Benedict's celebration at Yankee Stadium on April 20, the American Church has always expanded and contracted . . . and expanded.
Cyclical changes, however, don't account for the burgeoning of the Hispanic laity. Spanish-speaking Catholics are on the rise.
Given that Latin America itself is largely Catholic, it is no surprise that Hispanics represent the fastest growing segment of America's Catholic population. Fully 68 percent of American Hispanics are at least nominally Catholic, and it is these nearly 30 million people who have been driving the Church's growth. (See “Catholicism's Charismatics” sidebar below.)
The Pope has made no plans to comment on the upcoming presidential election, especially since there will be no Catholic presidential nominee. But he must know that Hispanic Catholics, politically liberal but culturally conservative (and registered Democrats by a margin of 3-to-1), may well be the margin of victory for one of the candidates.
Benedict XVI is just the third Pope to visit America, after Paul VI and John Paul II. Thanks mostly to Benedict's immediate predecessor — John Paul came to America seven times during his nearly 27-year reign — papal visits may seem routine. But prior to Paul VI, who came to New York in 1965, no Pope had journeyed outside Italy in more than a century and a half.
Because of his many foreign travels, Paul VI became known as the Pilgrim Pope. Yet his trips were far surpassed in number by those of John Paul II, who visited more than 120 countries. According to a BBC report, he was “seen in the flesh by more people than any other human being who has ever lived.”
One thing Pope Benedict has known from the beginning of his papacy is that he cannot replicate John Paul's visibility or popularity, and the first three years of his reign have mostly proved it.
According to veteran Vatican reporter John L. Allen Jr., in all of 2007 — his third year as Pope — Benedict made the front page of The New York Times just twice. At the same point in his pontificate, John Paul II had graced the Times' front page 25 times. But that may begin to change with Benedict's visit to the U.S., bringing the message: “Christ, Our Hope.”
Already there are signs that the Pope's popularity is on the rise.
“Benedict XVI is the most popular Pope in history,” says Italian journalist Sandro Magister. “The numbers speak.”
But Magister admits he is making that assertion based on the number of people the Pope “draws like a magnet to St. Peter's Square . . .” Attendance is reportedly double that seen by John Paul II, perhaps owing to Rome's proximity to Germany.
Still, Magister finds it remarkable that the current Pope draws these crowds without benefit of the charisma of John Paul. The throngs gathering in St. Peter's Square these days come for “nothing but his plain words.”
To consider why this octogenarian — the Pope celebrates his 81st birthday during his U.S. visit — is important, we first need to know who he is. If there is a theme for Josef Alois Ratzinger's life, it is one of orthodoxy and consistency.
The man who would become Pope was born in 1927 in the little German town of Marktl am Inn (“Little Market on the Inn River”). His father was a policeman, his mother a hotel cook. According to the official Vatican biography, the future Pope's “youthful years were not easy. His faith and the education received at home prepared him for the harsh experience of those years during which the Nazi regime pursued a hostile attitude towards the Catholic Church.”
Like all other teenagers in Germany during World War II, Joseph Ratzinger became a member of the Hitler Youth, and he was assigned to guard a BMW plant. But as author and priest Richard John Neuhaus has written, the young man abhorred the Nazis: “Family and Church were, for him, inseparable, and he clearly saw Hitler as the enemy of both. Nazism was at its heart a religious movement that, by its own evil lights, had to attack a Church that championed a 'foreign Jewish and Roman' faith.”
Ratzinger studied philosophy and theology at the universities in Freising and Munich, was ordained in 1951, and received his doctorate in theology two years later. He taught at a number of German universities, holding, as The New York Times has reported, “the chairmanship in dogma at the University of Regensburg from 1969 to 1976, until . . . his career focus shifted toward Rome.” Along the way, he learned to speak nine languages in addition to his native German.
He was a key aide to German churchmen during Vatican II, where he was a champion of liturgical reforms such as the right of Catholics to hear the Mass said in their own languages rather than in Latin. He would later rue the direction these reforms took.
“I was not able to foresee,” he wrote in his memoir Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1997, “that the negative sides of the liturgical movement would later re-emerge with redoubled strength, almost to the point of pushing the liturgy toward its own self-destruction.”
In the early 1970s, he founded Communio, arguably the world's most important Catholic periodical, along with other leading Catholic theologians including Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac. Thanks to his teaching and writing, Ratzinger had become in his late 40s one of a handful of priests whose careers were watched closely in Rome.
Nothing illustrates his meteoric rise through the Vatican more than the fact that Pope Paul VI made him an archbishop in March of 1977 and then a cardinal just three months later.
But the really big job came in 1981 when John Paul named Cardinal Ratzinger to the top spot at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican agency that oversees Catholic teaching and belief — and an agency that its critics enjoy pointing out was once known as the “inquisition.”
It was during his time at CDF that he got a series of nicknames, such as “God's Rottweiler,” “Bad Cop” (to John Paul II's Good Cop), “Panzerkardinal,” and “Cardinal No” — due to, as author Russell Shorto puts it, “his stern disciplining [of] Latin American practitioners of liberation theology; restating the ancient dogma that 'there is no salvation outside the church'; adamantly resisting any effort to change policies regarding birth control, priestly celibacy, or the ordination of women; and having no qualms about stepping into the political arena, as when he instructed American bishops during the 2004 presidential campaign that it was wrong to grant Holy Communion to a Catholic — like John Kerry — who supports abortion rights.”
It is debatable, however, that the oft-stated instruction to clergy to deny Communion to dissident Catholic politicians constitutes “stepping into the political arena.”
His election as history's 265th Pope came on April 19, 2005 — at which point he was given a new nickname, Papa Ratzi. His selection stunned many Catholics and non-Catholics alike, although certainly not Joseph Ratzinger's best American friend and former student, the Jesuit priest Joseph Fessio.
Fessio is the founder of the Catholic publishing house Ignatius Press, and a faculty member at Ave Maria University in Florida. Asked to comment on what it is like when a friend of 33 years suddenly becomes head of the Catholic Church, Fessio chuckled. “Well, I can definitely answer that. Actually, I was pretty certain he would become Pope quite early on. In fact, I wrote him a letter in 1995, asking for the rights to his future works, thinking those rights might come in handy. And they did.
“But to me the great joy, having known him and knowing what kind of person he really is — his depth, his wisdom, his serenity, his goodness — I knew that, with the Church in a very troubled time, we would have a leader who is an extraordinary person and a very holy man, a man of great wisdom. There was real joy in that.”
He first met Ratzinger when Fessio arrived at Regensburg to begin his doctoral studies. They have remained close ever since, and still speak regularly.
Benedict is what Fessio calls a “real European,” which is to say he maintains even his closest relationships with a kind of restraint unfamiliar to most Americans.
“Von Balthasar and de Lubac always used the formal form of address [with Ratzinger], and they were very, very close friends,” said Fessio. “What amazed me about it as an American from the West Coast . . . is how these people could have such really deep, deep bonds with each other and also have this sort of formality.”
Fessio says there is no change in Joseph Ratzinger now that he is Benedict XVI. “He's the same person he has always been. In a certain sense he is more himself; he just seems to fit the role so naturally. He even looks healthier and calmer than he used to.”
Another Jesuit priest, James V. Schall of Georgetown University, says the Pope is one of the most intellectually accomplished men anywhere in the world. But the enthusiasm of some Catholics in the rise of Ratzinger has to be balanced by the skepticism and even rage of others.
Author David Gibson, whose book The Rule of Benedict is critical of the Pope, said at the time of Benedict's election that Cardinal Ratzinger had alternated between “God's Rottweiler . . . [and] papal pussycat,” a reference to the cardinal's closeness with John Paul II. Mr. Gibson doubted that as Pope, Ratzinger would make any significant pronouncements about controversial issues. “He'll just say: 'Pray harder.'”
Less temperate were the comments of Andrew Sullivan, former New Republic editor, and Maureen Dowd, New York Times columnist — both Catholics. Sullivan referred to the new Pope as the “grand inquisitor” and said it was “hard to overestimate the radicalism of this decision,” by which he meant the papal conclave's choice of Ratzinger as Pope.
“It's a full-scale attack on the reformist wing of the Church,” Sullivan, who is openly gay, wrote on his blog. “The swiftness of the decision and the polarizing nature of this selection foretell a coming civil war within Catholicism. The space for dissidence, previously tiny, is now extinct. And the attack on individual political freedom is just beginning.”
According to Dowd, the Pope is a “hidebound archconservative who ran the office that used to be called the Inquisition and who once belonged to Hitler Youth.”
His supporters say Benedict is the right man at the right time, that he believes the Church ought to be a candle of hope for each individual man, woman, and child, not a torch leading the mob, and that he believes less in the magnetism of his office and his own personality than in the fundamentals of the faith.
John Paul II may have had the soul of a poet and the charisma of a rock star, and Benedict XVI the soul of an academic and the charisma of an accountant, but the new Pope's friends say the Roman Catholic Church is now in need of stern teaching and clear-eyed reckoning.
The difference between the approaches of the two friends towards papal authority can be seen in two images: John Paul on a tarmac in Nicaragua in 1983 cajoling poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal into tempering his political activism, urging him to quit the Sandinista government, and Benedict on an airplane to Brazil last year bluntly pronouncing excommunication on politicians who advocate abortion rights. For the one it was the art of persuasion; for the other it is my-way-or-the-highway.
Does this mean Benedict XVI is willing to see the Church, especially in Europe, grow even smaller? His friend Father Fessio believes the Pope simply does not think in such terms. To him the key is the proclamation of the Gospel, not a census of believers. Robert Royal, however, has a somewhat different view: “The idea of a smaller Church is one of the hallmarks of his career.”
Dr. Royal is quick to point out, however, that the Pope has no intention of simply writing off those Catholics whose faith does not currently conform to Church teaching.
“It's not easy to know what strategy the Pope may employ to change things,” he said, “and none of us quite knows why common ground among Catholics seems so hard to achieve.” In this regard, Royal thinks the Pope may know more about the complex intellectual history of the modern world than just about anybody.
“He has a better grasp of what went wrong.”
That Benedict XVI is important to American Catholics is obvious, but non-Catholics also look to him for leadership. The Pope is
widely admired for taking a muscular stand against violent, Islamic fundamentalism, for advocating religious liberty throughout the world, for not kowtowing to New Age, multiculturalist views on a range of issues (including global warming), and for having a strong affection for the United States.
In Without Roots, a book that details the exchange of ideas between him and Marcello Pera, president of the Italian senate, the man who would become Pope wrote — evoking the great 19th-century author Alexis de Tocqueville — that the “unstable and fragmentary system of rules on which, to outward appearances, [American] democracy is founded” manage to work because of America's “thriving Protestant Christian-inspired” religious and moral convictions.
His argument is, politically at least, almost libertarian in its emphasis that the order created was spontaneous and not the result of an imposed structure. He explained to Sen. Pera: “In this regard, I would like to quote a significant phrase from de Tocqueville: 'Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot' . . . You quote an expression of John Adams that conveys a similar thought; namely, that the American Constitution 'was made only for a moral and a religious people.'
“In the United States, too, [as in Europe] secularization is proceeding at an accelerating pace, and the confluence of many different cultures disrupts the basic Christian consensus. However, there is a much clearer and more implicit sense in America than in Europe that the religious and moral foundation bequeathed by Christianity is greater than that of any single denomination.”
One senses his pride at noting that in America the familiar antipathy between Protestants and Catholics is disappearing. American evangelicals, he writes, now see Catholicism as a bulwark against the secularism that threatens everyone, and the Pope sees the American example as a beacon to the rest of the world.
The Pope's visit to America also has strategic importance, as the Church races to solidify its position against Islam worldwide.
It is often said that Islam is the fastest growing religion on earth. If so, Catholicism is hot on its heels. In Asia and especially in Africa, the growth of the Catholic Church has been astonishing.
“The future,” says Robert Royal, “is more tied up in the rest of the world,” than with Europe or even the U.S.
In Africa alone, the Catholic population has tripled over the last 25 years, from 55 million to almost 144 million, and now constitutes 17 percent of the continent's inhabitants.
In China, where other forms of Western thought and practice are aggressively seeking a foothold, Catholicism is holding its own. For one thing, the Church has been in China much longer than in the U.S. — the earliest missionaries brought the faith there hundreds of years before Columbus reached America.
Modern China remains a relatively closed society, so estimating the growth of Catholicism there is tricky. The Chinese government will admit to no more than 5 million Catholics in its state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, but there may be twice that many “underground” Catholics — although probably less than 1 percent of China's billion-plus population is Catholic.
Still, as the power of the Communist Party wanes as many predict it will, the vacuum it leaves will have to be filled by something, and, as in other parts of Asia, that will probably be either Catholicism or Islam. The Pope knows this.
Benedict has expressed his hope to visit China, although he told a delegation from Hong Kong that the timing is a matter of God's will. If he did, he would be the first pontiff to do so.
What he can do now, and is doing, is to establish better relations with the Chinese government, his main goal being to bring those millions of underground worshipers out of hiding and to regain Vatican control over priestly ordinations and episcopal appointments in China. So far the government will not condone any bishops it has not approved.
His outreach to China has sometimes been controversial and often misunderstood. The Wall Street Journal was highly critical of the Pope for deciding not to meet with the Dalai Lama in Europe last December. And the Vatican's own statement explaining why the meeting did not take place seemed needlessly chilly: “Last year the Pope received him,” a spokesman said, referring to the Dalai Lama's visit to Vatican City. “I don't think it is necessary to receive him every time he has come.”
Many assumed the Pope's decision was motivated by his desire not to offend the Chinese government, which reflexively condemns anybody who hosts the Dalai Lama. As the Journal put it, the Pope's decision was “a disappointment in the broader fight for religious freedom for Catholics and people of other creeds in China.”
This is mild compared to the reaction of some “traditionalist” Catholics, who have called the new policy toward the Chinese Church a betrayal — imagining that the Pope's call for one Church in China will lead to secret police dragging underground Chinese Catholics from their homes.
With regard to Islam, the Pope has attacked the underlying idea in Islam that Christians should be forced to either convert or accept second-class citizenship, and he has defended the right of Muslims themselves to convert to Christianity — a decision of conscience that in some Muslim countries is punishable by death.
The refrain in the song “New York, New York” declares hopefully, “If I can make it there, I'm gonna make it anywhere.” And there are, no doubt, many who hope Pope Benedict XVI will do just that — his appearances in Washington and New York will make him the sort of media star John Paul II was.
Asked what he hoped would come from Pope Benedict's visit, Robert Royal said: “That the Pope will be able to show Americans what a thoughtful and creative person he really is. He is a great teacher. His former students almost always say he was their favorite professor — always the most engaging and best prepared.”
To the same question, journalist Francis X. Rocca said he hopes Americans will listen: “Most people don't know Benedict as a writer and thinker, so I hope people in the States take the opportunity to listen at some length to what he has to say, which is deeply stimulating whether or not you agree with it.”
And so he comes bringing hope, as he did in a sermon given at last year's Christmas Eve Mass. “In some Christmas scenes from the late Middle Ages and the early Modern period,” the Pope said, “the stable is depicted as a crumbling palace. It is still possible to recognize its former splendor, but now it has become a ruin, the walls are falling down; in fact, it has become a stable.”
He went on to say that Christ rebuilds the palace, and what he “rebuilds is no ordinary palace. [Christ] came to restore beauty and dignity to creation, to the universe: This is what began at Christmas and makes the angels rejoice.”
It is a truth the Pope believes with all his heart will be lived out in the souls of men and women of goodwill everywhere: in Europe, Africa, Asia — and yes, in the United States.
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