It won't be the easiest roadshow for the leader of the world's largest Christian church, a man who many thought would be a quiet but dogmatic transitional figure focused on preserving the church in an increasingly secular Europe. But Pope Benedict XVI has already upset expectations, and when he arrives this month for his first pontifical visit to the United States, many of his admirers believe that he will overturn more.
As Benedict well appreciates, his upcoming six-day visit to Washington and New York City will bring him into direct contact with a nation that has not only the third-largest Roman Catholic population in the world but also the most diverse. In ethnic terms, that variety may be taking on an increasingly Hispanic cast—at almost 30 percent and rapidly growing—but most of America's 195 dioceses can boast of parishes with a mini-United Nations of national flavorings as well as those in which the melting pot has effectively left no particular ethnic imprint at all.
But the diversity of America's Roman Catholic Church hardly ends with ethnicity. It also includes a rainbow of attitudes and convictions—political, social, liturgical, even theological—that reflect American individualism in ways that strain even the universalism of the Catholic Church. It's a tough act to read this audience and even tougher to know how to address it. And it makes it no easier that this pope, a private man known for his formidable intellect and doctrinal rigor, follows in the footsteps of the charismatic and beloved John Paul II.
Which is not to suggest that most American Catholics are ill-disposed toward Benedict. His former sharp-edged image as God's Rottweiler grew out of his years as chief enforcer of doctrine, the Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who quashed liberation theology or any other departures from strict church teaching. But now completing the third year of his papacy, having penned major encyclicals emphasizing hope and charity, he appears less concerned with policing borders than with gently reminding the flock of core Christian principles. If he remains firmly orthodox in his teaching, it is an "affirmative orthodoxy," in the words of National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen. "This has been a far more moderate, gradualist pontificate than most people anticipated," Allen says. And as polls have shown, a large majority of American Catholics say they approve of the German-born prelate, who will turn 81 on his U.S. visit.
Yet even Benedict's staunchest supporters admit that most American Catholics have, at best, a dim sense of the man. "He hasn't been as high profile in my mind as John Paul was," says Michael Teolis, the band director at the Latin School of Chicago and a regular mass-attending Catholic. While Teolis approves of what the current pope has done to encourage traditional practices, including the Latin mass, he is still uncertain what Benedict's mission is, even on this trip. "Why," he asks, "is he coming?"
Connection. The official reason is to honor the bicentennial of the nation's five oldest dioceses. The pope's schedule will include three large public masses, a meeting with President Bush, a colloquy with the U.S. bishops, an address to Catholic educators, a speech at the U.N., and a visit to ground zero. But Benedict's larger, unstated mission is to forge a more personal connection with his American flock and indeed with Americans of all faiths. "I think he has captured attention by what he hasn't been," says the Very Rev. David O'Connell, president of the Catholic University of America. "Now he can tell people what he is and is trying to achieve: the renewal of the entire church in the faith in which it has been baptized; a return to the core, the fundamentals."
The question, of course, is what the church will make of that message. And that will depend in great measure on how well the pope's teaching appears to address the needs of a church that almost all Catholics agree is at a critical juncture (and some would even say a crisis). Yet what makes this intersection so critical—and what is needed to bring the church through it—are understood according to all those differences that seem to put this church constantly on the verge of internal upheaval.
Many of those differences amount to a kind of ongoing debate on the value and meaning of Vatican II. The church's 21st ecumenical council, Vatican II (1962-65) was launched with the overarching goal of renewing the church. Its leaders and architects (including the dazzlingly brilliant theologian Joseph Ratzinger) believed that a more sharply defined understanding of the nature of the church and the roles of its hierarchy would help restore Christian unity and open up a dialogue with the contemporary world. Some 40 years later, many American Catholics firmly believe the changes that came out of Vatican II were mostly for the better, whether the vernacular mass, nuns in civilian clothes, reconciliation with Judaism, or ecumenical gestures toward other Christian denominations.
Some council supporters even wish that the modernizing spirit had gone further, permitting married clergy or allowing women to enter the priestly ranks. And the nearly two thirds of American Catholics who oppose the ban on condoms tend to view the church's inflexible stand on birth control as a betrayal of the council's spirit.
At the same time, of course, an equally passionate chorus of Catholics rues the council, or at least what it views as the sloppy, overly liberal application of the council's principles. To these Catholics, Vatican II was responsible for destroying the traditions, the discipline, and even the distinctive identity of the church. And, not surprisingly, they see the causes and possible solutions to the church's current challenges in a very different way from those on the other side of the Vatican II divide.
Take the most dramatic challenge, the still-festering wound of the priest sexual abuse scandal. With an overall cost in legal fees and settlements of around $1.5 billion and six dioceses in bankruptcy, the scandal has eroded the moral authority of the clergy and continues to raise doubts about the ability of the bishops to ferret out offenders and prevent further abuse. "The toll in financial and social capital is enormous," says Notre Dame historian Scott Appleby.
Progressives tend to see the problem in terms of a fundamental lack of realism on the part of the hierarchy, particularly the continued insistence on a celibate clergy. Many also think greater lay participation in church governance would help. One recent poll shows that some 44 percent of American Catholics approve of the idea of parishes choosing their own priests. And some Catholics want to have a say in the selection of bishops. In the view of Robert Rowden, a regional coordinator of the lay activist group Voice of the Faithful, which has led the fight to end the coverup of abuse in the church, the biggest disconnect between Benedict and the church is his "failure to recognize the full impact of clergy sex abuse on the victims."
Some would call that an ungenerous judgment. After all, even as Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict approved the U.S. bishops' plan to address the abuse scandal, a plan that many Vatican officials and bishops feared would be so aggressive that its costs would crush the church. Ratzinger stood by the U.S. bishops. And if the costs have proved staggering, they attest to a willingness to clear out the rot and make amends. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the instruments for its enforcement, including annual diocesan audits, have even caused some American bishops to think that they have gone too far. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., sees no need for more than one audit. "I am not sure how effective it is," says the bishop, who can boast of no new allegations of abuse in his diocese during the 16 years of his tenure. "If the bishop is untrustworthy, the bishop should be dismissed."
It is clear that conservative Catholics, whether lay or clergy, see the abuse problem more as an outgrowth of the permissiveness that was pervasive in America in the '60s and '70s and even permeated the church. To them, the spirit of Vatican II weakened discipline within the vocational ranks and allowed sexual and moral license to flourish in seminaries, parishes, and religious institutions. They believe that Benedict's clarity on moral teaching and his insistence on more rigorous examination of candidates for religious vocations, including the exclusion of those with even homosexual leanings, address the real problem. They also point to a new cadre of bishops who are generally thought to be stronger than John Paul II's appointees.
But will Benedict's insistence on vocational fitness address the crisis of declining numbers of priests, sisters, and brothers? Even before the abuse scandal, alarms were sounding over what Appleby calls "the dramatic demographics in the decline of ordained priests and the cutting in half of the number of women religious since 1960." As the U.S. Catholic population has risen from about 46 million in 1965 to about 64 million in 2007, the total number of priests has declined during the same time by some 17,000, leaving 3,238 parishes without resident priests. Again, the progressive remedies, in addition to ordination of women and married men, focus on greater lay involvement in the ministry—solutions for which Benedict appears to have little or no regard. Rowden says that it is clearly symbolic that Benedict's mass communion at Yankee Stadium will involve no lay Eucharistic ministers, a decision that suggests a further disconnect with the church in America.
But some see the tide beginning to turn as the church recovers its distinctive identity. Conservative Catholics point to the impressive growth of traditionalist, habit-wearing orders such as Nashville's Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. Bishop Bruskewitz claims that his and his predecessor's insistence on orthodoxy and "a clarity of ideas," in addition to a concern for fairness and justice, has helped give the Lincoln Diocese a ratio of priests (153) to parishioners (90,000) that would be the envy of many dioceses. So traditional that he refuses to allow altar girls, Bruskewitz points with pride to the number of religious vocations the diocese has produced, testimony, he believes, to the appeal of an institution that knows what it is and what it stands for.
Many Catholics can go along with that view—to varying degrees. Washington, D.C., writer and editor Charlotte Hays is a staunch conservative who hails Benedict for emphasizing the central importance of the mass. A parishioner at St. Mary, Mother of God, a church in the vanguard of a movement to return to the traditional Tridentine mass, Hays says it's not just the Latin but other elements, such as the priest's facing the altar, that help restore a sense of what Catholics call "real presence" to the ceremony.
Sister Patricia Wittberg, a professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, casts a skeptical eye on all the hard-and-fast liberal and conservative positions and even the data that can be used to support them. Acknowledging the appeal of traditionalism, she points out that orders like the Nashville Dominicans draw recruits from national pools in numbers similar to what they used to draw from their localities alone. "Conservative Catholicism is more likely to grow in this country than the liberal version," she says, "but there will be a limit to how much [the whole church] will grow if it's only a conservative Catholicism. There should be the possibility of evolving several different flavors of Catholicism that affirm what is good and central to each flavor." At the same time, she says, it is fine if liberal Catholics emphasize social justice and antiwar positions, but when they combine that with the radical individualism of the larger American culture, "you can't get them to unify on anything, which makes them sociologically unstable."
Mixed message. A recent Pew Forum poll emphasized that more Catholics leave the religion of their childhood than do members of any other church, but it somewhat neglected the fact that the church's retention rate is third only to those of Judaism and Mormonism. This mixed state of affairs may partly result from what Catholics, whether active or fallen, have long felt about their church: that it is, in Appleby's words, "something more than an institution but almost a metaphysical reality, an abiding truth." In a strongly secular age, that sense may be less accessible to younger Catholics, for whom the church may seem, as Appleby puts it, "just another institution, which must perform to earn members." If so, is Benedict's emphasis on the fundamentals just what the church now needs?
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."