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U.S. trip introduces unknown church to an unknown pope

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Central to the anticipation surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s April visit to the United States is a widespread curiosity among U.S. Catholics about a pontiff whom they mostly know only through headlines and video clips. What he is like in person? And what he will say to his large and […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Central to the anticipation surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s April visit to the United States is a widespread curiosity among U.S. Catholics about a pontiff whom they mostly know only through headlines and video clips.

What he is like in person? And what he will say to his large and often independent-minded flock in the United States?

Such questions might seem odd, since for nearly a quarter-century before his 2005 election as pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Vatican lightning rod on the most explosive doctrinal controversies. No one in Rome _ except Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II _ garnered more media attention, and no one got so much negative press.

But not only is Ratzinger in a different role now as pope, he also has relatively little direct experience of U.S. Catholicism _ a flock that, despite its outsized influence, still represents just 7 percent of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

At heart, Benedict is a thoroughly European man, a German-born academic and classical pianist who speaks Latin _ yes, Latin _ with greater fluency than he does English. For years before his election, he wanted nothing more than to return to the Bavarian university town of Regensburg to write and lecture.

Yet now he finds himself about to visit Washington and New York as pope. It could be a learning experience for both sides.

Vatican officials say that as cardinal, Ratzinger visited the U.S. just five times _ the last nearly a decade ago _ and always on academic missions or church business. In a 1996 book-length interview, “Salt of the Earth,” Ratzinger was hesitant to comment on the American religious scene “because I have so little knowledge of America.”

Yet that’s not to say that Benedict does not appreciate the United States. In that same interview, he noted that America has a “commitment to morality and a desire for religion” _ even citing Hillary Clinton’s plea to families to watch less television as evidence of a “broad current” of counter-culturalism.

Last month, when he accepted the credentials of the new American ambassador to the Holy See, Benedict struck that note again, extolling the United States as “a nation which values the role of religious belief in ensuring a vibrant and ethically sound democratic order.”

Associates of the pope also stress that he is well-informed on American culture and politics, as well as church life. As a cardinal, Ratzinger always had Americans on the staff at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and as pope appointed William Levada, the archbishop of San Francisco, to his old job, making Levada the highest-ranking American ever to serve at the Vatican.

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Ratzinger’s and the publisher of all of Ratzinger’s works in English through Ignatius Press, also cited Benedict’s intellect as compensating for his lack of direct personal experience of the U.S.

“I’ve had the practice over more than two decades of speaking with him, each time we met, about the two or three problems here which I thought most important,” Fessio, a Jesuit, said in an interview. “I don’t recall ever telling him something he didn’t already know.”

On the other hand, Benedict’s American contacts are almost all like-minded conservatives, which may give him a somewhat slanted view of American church life. As John Paul’s doctrinal czar, Ratzinger was instrumental in the campaign to rein in liberal and moderate forces in the American church. He disciplined theologians and prelates, promoted like-minded bishops to prominent posts and quashed debates over issues like the role of women or birth control.

The tipping point _ in the Vatican’s favor _ may have been a 1989 showdown in Rome between Vatican officials and American church leaders. During that summit, Ratzinger was John Paul’s chief spokesman, and he told the bishops in no uncertain terms that they are “guardians of an authoritarian tradition” and must be firm and not overly tolerant: “Pastoral activity consists in placing man at the point of decision, confronting him with the authority of truth.”

The effort, while taking a toll, was considered a success.

Observers generally agree the American church is in a quiescent _ some would say resigned _ era. Already in his 1996 interview, Ratzinger acknowledged that tensions with the American hierarchy had eased, and that there were only “30 bishops at most” (out of about 300) who caused headaches for the Vatican.

Now that he is making his first papal visit to the United States, Ratzinger is likely to soften his tone. He is the pastor-in-chief now, and will follow the model of John Paul, exhorting the flock to a greater fidelity to Rome but reminding them _ as gently as possible _ of their failings.

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In addition, there may be more focus on Benedict’s support for environmental protection, his “liberal” (by American standards) stands on social welfare and immigration, and his continued opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Overall, however, Benedict is far more likely to please conservatives than he is liberals. Conservatives tend to overlook papal pronouncements they do not like, and this pope is, at heart, a conservative.

In receiving new U.S. ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, Benedict made no direct mention of his earlier opposition to the war in Iraq, preferring to press his concerns about abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage, and his support for a greater public role for religion.

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Benedict will surely do little to advance the reform-minded agenda of Catholics who want the church to consider changes in doctrine, tradition or governance. As he once said, “being a Christian today does not stand or fall on these questions. … I believe we should finally be clear on this point, that the church is not suffering on account of these questions.”

Instead, the pope will want to remind Catholics that remaining a counter-cultural force is the best way not only to push America toward a more just society, but also to unite fractious Catholics under the banner of a common, and somewhat retro, Catholic identity.

Whether such a vision is realistic _ or even desirable _ at this point in the history of the U.S. church will likely be one more debating point during the visit, and for a long time to come.

(David Gibson is a veteran religion writer and the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World.”)

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