Pope Reaches Out to American Catholics

Benedict XVI to visit Washington, D.C., and New York City in April.

The Church, by the numbers (continued)

Many think so—or at least hope so. The fine line between emphasizing doctrinal orthodoxy and not reducing the church to a remnant that reads out Catholics of different "flavors" is one that many Catholics say this pope is effectively walking. They point to his forthcoming address to Catholic educators, including the 213 presidents of Catholic colleges and universities, which some say will be his most substantive U.S. speech. Conservatives such as Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, believe that the pope will insist upon benchmarks and guidelines to strengthen the religious identity of Catholic schools.

That identity, conservatives argue, has been particularly weak in higher education ever since the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities issued its 1967 statement affirming the independence of its institutions from any external controls. (Only one such American college, the Catholic University of America, is run by the church hierarchy.) Despite efforts by John Paul II to get American colleges to adopt minimal standards, including the local bishop's approval for professors of theology and the maintenance of a campus life that is consistent with Catholic teaching, American Catholic colleges have remained largely true to the spirit of their 1967 statement. That independence has sometimes been reckless, conservatives hold, as when Catholic colleges invite "pro-choice" politicians to speak on campus. Reilly believes that Benedict will now insist that these institutions come up with minimal norms of "Catholicity" or consider whether they should continue to identify themselves as Catholic institutions.

But others, including the current ACCU president, Richard Yanikoski, think it is wrong to expect that Benedict will bring down the hammer. Yanikoski suggests that the best indicator of what the pope will say can be found in the speech that he intended to give at Rome's Sapienza University in January, until the protests of students and faculty who wrongly anticipated a dogmatic harangue forced him to withdraw. That speech reflects Benedict's background as a scholar appreciative of academic freedom, even while it emphasizes the relationship between faith and reason. Catholic University's O'Connell agrees that ultimatums are unlikely: "It would be hard to imagine that he wouldn't refer to 'Ex Corde Ecclesiae' (John Paul II's 1990 formulation of what constitutes a Catholic college) and fidelity to its norms. But he won't come here with a new set of norms. I believe it will be a positive and encouraging speech about Catholic education."

Encouragement is exactly what historian Appleby believes the church in America needs—and on many fronts. Listen to Jessica La Fleur Malm, who directs youth and young adult programs for the diocese in Sioux City, Iowa, and you hear someone who hopes that Benedict will make himself better known as a friend of young Catholics, many of whom, she believes, have no idea how to incorporate faith into their daily lives.

Or talk to the Rev. John Flynn, the hardworking septuagenarian pastor of the mostly Hispanic St. Martin of Tours in the Bronx borough of New York, and you hear a man struggling to minister to the needs of some 300 congregants, many of whom work so hard that they can't make time for mass on the weekend. "We have to take services to people's homes," he says. Flynn is worried about desperate poverty, gangs, and the attraction of Pentecostalism and other strongly evangelizing churches. He also worries that Catholics are not as disciplined in the faith anymore. "I think we have to stand behind our principles, and I want to stand behind our pope. It's all a challenge, and it's different. We can't use the threat of hell, but we have to emphasize the promise of the kingdom, so that people want to come here to form a brotherhood and a sisterhood."

Not all American Catholics have to share Bishop Bruskewitz's conservatism to share his hope for what Benedict's visit will do for his large American flock: "He brings the shadow of Peter to us, to bring us spiritual healing."