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The Pope in America

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
Updated: April 18, 2008


In seven trips to the United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the late Pope John Paul II carried on a lively relationship with Americans, alternately charming and challenging Catholics and non-Catholics alike. John Paul’s messages expressed hopes for America’s moral role in the world, as well as admonitions about materialism, and what he later called the “culture of death,” tolerating abortion and the death penalty. While U.S. presidents during his tenure took varying positions on abortion, John Paul and the White House found common cause in opposing communism, promoting educational and global health programs, and on human rights issues generally.

His successor, Benedict XVI, making his first visit as pope to the United States, is a much less known figure to most Americans, finds the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. But his goals and itinerary will seem familiar—holy Masses at sports stadiums, a UN address, and meetings with Catholic leaders and academics. Prior to becoming pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger visited the United States several times and was said to be particularly impressed by the country’s balance of church-state relations (TIME). In an April 17 Mass at Washington Nationals stadium the pope called Americans a “people of hope” but said the church as well as society was facing a crossroads over faith, “a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of Christ and God.” This Backgrounder looks at the Vatican’s foreign policy and ties to the United States.

The Pew Forum’s recent report on the country’s religious landscape found U.S. Roman Catholics in a bit of flux. One-third of U.S. adults who were raised Catholic have left the church, which is coping with pressures including a shortage of priests and the lingering effects of the sex-abuse scandal that has cost the church prestige and billions of dollars in legal settlements. Yet the overall number of U.S. Catholics remains stable at nearly 70 million, the third-largest congregation in the world, helped in large part by the immigration of Catholic Hispanics.

But it is not the size of the U.S. church but its “depth of commitment” to the teachings of Jesus Christ that likely concerns Pope Benedict, says CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Timothy Samuel Shah. In meetings with Catholic clergy and educators, Shah expects Benedict to press leaders on whether churches and Catholic educational institutions are “really inculcating the full range of Catholic teaching on a variety of issues.” At the same time, there has been great public anticipation about how Benedict would address the priest sex-abuse scandal, in which dioceses across the country have admitted to shielding priests known to have abused minors. The pope has addressed the issue repeatedly on the visit, expressing shame and concern about the pain it has caused. On April 17 he met in the papal embassy with five victims of sexual abuse (AP) by priests, offering them comfort and hope.

Also watched closely during Benedict’s visit will be his meeting with Jewish leaders, first in Washington, then New York, where he will make the third papal visit ever to a synagogue (IHT). Jewish leaders have responded with concern after the pope’s recent decision to revive the Latin liturgy of the Good Friday Mass, which includes a call for the conversion of Jews.

At the White House on April 16, the pope was greeted with an elaborate ceremony on the South Lawn attended by more than 13,000 people. Private talks between President George W. Bush and Benedict “devoted considerable time” (NYT) to the Middle East, including the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the situation in Iraq, said a White House statement. Pope Benedict, like John Paul before him, opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The pope’s April 18 speech in the hall of the UN General Assembly did not discuss specific cases but he called for a “deeper search for ways of pre-empting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue, and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliation.” Benedict also offered his endorsement of the concept of “responsibility to protect,” which holds that states unwilling or unable to shield their citizens from crimes against humanity should face international intervention (WashPost). In his address, the pope implored UN members to protect and defend human rights and respect religious freedoms.

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