Voyage of discovery
Special Report: Benedict XVI in the United StatesRobert Mickens
- 26 April 2008
Tens of millions across the United States were entranced by the visit of the Pope of ‘faith and reason' to their country and engaged by his frankness, especially over the matter of clerical sexual abuse. But there was as much unsaid as spoken
Pope Benedict XVI could not have hoped for a warmer reception than the one he got in the United States. If the headlines that described his six-day visit to the world's fourth-largest Catholic country were accurate, it would seem that the Americans fell head over heels in love with this Pope of "faith and reason", the same man many of them evidently believed was "God's Rottweiler" just three years ago.
The visit, which began with an unprecedented White House ceremony led by President George W. Bush and ended at a raucous airport send-off last Sunday by Vice President Dick Cheney, further shattered the old stereotypes that once stuck to Joseph Ratzinger. But it may also have led to some new stereotypes - including some rather inane ones.
"Before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger was known as a very staunch Catholic," said one of New York's local TV personalities. The reporter said Benedict XVI had shown that "he really is a ‘people person', and that he is very open to change".
The "gentle Bavarian visitor" (as one Wall Street Journal commentator called him) charmed the fickle American media and even converted some of his longstanding critics within the Catholic Church during a dozen public events in Washington and New York City. Fr James Martin, acting publisher of the Jesuit magazine America, boldly confessed in the New York Times that he "was one of those (many) liberal Catholics who was disappointed by (Benedict's) election". But he said last week's visit left him "feeling real admiration - and even affection" for the Pope.
Whether or not it was a planned strategy, Benedict disarmed his critics. He coupled his preaching of the hard moral "truths" of conservative Catholicism with the Gospel message of love and hope. Even papal vestments and his softly spoken and distinctively accented English seemed to enhance his religious authority and impress ordinary Americans, most of whom were getting their first long look at the Pope. "Americans love anyone whose first name is ‘the'," said a former Washington priest who tried to explain the Pope's unexpected appeal.
But image was only part of the allure. Benedict XVI won points from nearly everyone for expressing "deep shame" over the clerical sex-abuse scandal and, even more dramatically, for meeting several of the victims - a private encounter that the Franciscan Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston helped arrange. The Pope admitted that the sex-abuse problem was "sometimes very badly handled" by the US bishops, though he later said they were now dealing with it "effectively".
The overall effect of his repeated references to the abuse crisis throughout his time in the United States was a sign for many Catholics that "the Pope gets it". Before the visit many wondered if he really did. Even leaders of Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the group that has been most critical of church authorities for the way they have handled this issue, voiced appreciation for the Pope's words and gestures, while also demanding further action be taken against bishops who reassigned the abusing priests.
Americans of all faiths and walks of life - especially the more patriotic - gave the Pope high marks after he praised the founding ideals of liberty of this "great country" while speaking before several thousand people on the famed White House lawn. The event was said to be the grandest welcome in American history for a foreign dignitary. And the fact that the Pope turned 81 years old that same day gave the excited crowd the opportunity to offer him a cake and sing "Happy Birthday", all of which added a common touch - so valued by the American people - and helped cast this regal person in a familiar and sympathetic light. His meetings with Jews, non-Catholic Christians and leaders of other religions were seen as goodwill gestures. Little was reported of his actual words at those gatherings.
Pope Benedict's poignant moment of prayer at Ground Zero, the crater left by the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, was viewed as solidarity with all Americans who continue to feel particularly vulnerable in the high-security "post 9/11 world". One commentator called this America's "Golgotha" and said the Pope had hallowed it by his presence.
However, others found it disturbing and strange that, as an international "moral leader", the Pope never once mentioned the word "Iraq" or the spoke out against American soldiers who tortured terrorist suspects. Those who expected him to chide the United States directly on these points were left disappointed. Some observers noted that the Pope addressed the issue in his lengthy and philosophical speech to the United Nations. He said "multilateral consensus" continued to be "in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few".
But Pope Benedict's speech during his visit to the UN - the original purpose for going to America - was pitched high in the realm of philosophical principles. Marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Pope professed his support and "esteem" for the UN. But he warned member states to resist "pressures to reinterpret the Declaration and to compromise its inner unity" by moving away from "the protection of human dignity towards the satisfaction of simple interests, often particular interests".
The Pope stressed his conviction that human rights remain based on "natural law" and urged leaders to reject a "relativistic conception" that would deny this. He also lamented "secular ideology" - a recurrent theme throughout his US visit - and argued for the "right of religious freedom" and the "possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order". Pope Benedict several times endorsed the principle of the "responsibility to protect", saying the international community "must intervene with juridical means" when states do not protect their citizens. This should include "pre-empting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue", he said. However, he did not indicate if military action was acceptable when diplomacy failed.
Such ambiguity was even more evident in his speech to several hundred Catholic academics. Speaking specifically of "faculty members at Catholic universities", the Pope said: "I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom." He then urged professors to "search for truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads" them. But in the next breath he set down restrictions. "Any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission," he warned.
The meeting with the academics was only one of several events that made up the specifically Church-focused aspect of the papal visit. Two outdoor Masses - at baseball stadiums in Washington and New York - were linked to bicentennial celebrations of the elevation of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the original founding of dioceses in Bardstown (now Louisville), Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Pope Benedict also held a public prayer session, a meeting with the US bishops, a Mass with priests and Religious, and a gathering with seminarians and other young people. At all these events the Pope was praised for being gentle and soft-spoken.
His message even seemed to be well received in what was, perhaps, the trickiest part of the visit. While praising the Catholic Church in the country for its vast and vibrant network of schools, parishes and other institutions, the Pope also warned that believers had to do more to fight against the "increasingly secular and materialist culture" of America. He called for a return to the classic method of "apologetics" as a way of proclaiming the Church's truth. And he urged the formulation of a "religious culture" that would include "cultivating a Catholic identity which is based not so much on externals as on a way of thinking and acting".
One of the most pressing messages Pope Benedict handed to American Catholics was the need for greater unity among the members of his flock. At an "operatic" Mass in New York's St Patrick's Cathedral, the Pope said "division" within the Church was one of the "great disappointments" following the Second Vatican Council. He said Catholics needed to be more open "to points of view which may not necessarily conform to our own ideas or assumptions" and "value the perspectives of others".
Understandably, perhaps, few people were willing to recall the major role Cardinal Ratzinger played during the post-conciliar period and how it may have contributed to, or healed, the divisions in the Church he spoke about. Neither did anyone publicly cite the tensions in the 1980s between the once-robust US bishops' conference and the Vatican - including the then Ratzinger-led Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - or that those tensions were resolved by the appointment of bishops more docile to Rome. Whether this was owing to collective amnesia or just a desire for a more serene period in the Church, the long-standing neuralgic issues such liturgical reform, women's ministry, contraception, human sexuality and lay authority were never seriously discussed during the papal visit. It would be a mistake to think these have been resolved. As one seasoned New York priest said: "It was like having your father-in-law over for a visit. You hide all the mess and then, after he leaves, you bring it all out again."