If anybody still had any questions about why Pope Benedict XVI came to America, the answer should have been made clear yesterday, the second day of his U. S. tour. The pontiff, who turned 81 yesterday, came to teach. And the core of his message, it should now be equally clear, is a vigorous defense of faith in an increasingly secular world.
Following a morning visit to the White House and motorcades through the thronged streets of the nation's capital, the pontiff came in the late afternoon to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in northeast Washington to speak directly to the shepherds of the American Roman Catholic flock, some 300 bishops and nine cardinals of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
After evening service (with many prayers and chants in the traditional Latin) and brief words of greeting by the president of the conference, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the German-born pontiff, speaking in a thickly accented English, delivered a treatiselike address to his "brother bishops," one that put into an American context some of the major themes of his three-year pontificate.
Just as he had in his earlier Rose Garden speech at the White House, Benedict began by praising America's religious vitality and acknowledging its basis in a political order that allows an unrestricted variety of religious practices and beliefs. But he quickly turned from praising the secular political arrangement to warning against the dangers of aggressive secularism—an ideology that, in his view, threatens to reduce faith to a strictly private matter.
In some of his remarks, observers noted, the pontiff seemed to jump into the middle of America's heated and ongoing debate over the role of religion in the public square: "Is it," he asked, "consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?" How such remarks will be taken by the bishops remains to be seen, but some observers saw them as strong encouragement to requiring stronger fidelity to Catholic principles among those citizens who claim to be Catholic, including politicians.
The pope pointed to other challenges to faith in contemporary America, including materialism and an excessive individualism that allows people, in his words, "to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear toward them." But it was his recurrent command to his bishops to resist any effort to reduce faith to a private matter that will probably be most remarked upon, particularly in the growing heat of an election year. And with Catholics making up roughly one fourth of the Senate and one third of the House of Representatives (not to mention five Catholic Supreme Court justices), one of the pope's most direct remarks could either sound alarms or excite hopes, depending on the listeners: "In the United States, as elsewhere," Benedict said, "there is much current and proposed legislation that gives cause for concern from the point of view of morality, and the Catholic community, under your guidance, needs to offer a clear and united witness on such matters."
Benedict also again apologized for the priest sex abuse scandal, acknowledging that it was "sometimes very badly handled." But spokespeople for various victim groups felt that he had missed a crucial opportunity to reprimand the bishops for their lack of oversight and even, in some cases, for shielding the offenders from justice. While apologizing for the scandal, however, Benedict tried to put it into the context of a large societal disorder: "the degrading manifestations and crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today." Whether this was diluting responsibility or stating an obvious cultural reality is a point that will also be hotly debated.
As, in fact, will much of what the pope has said, and will say, as he brings his well-known campaign against the "dictatorship of relativism" to America's culture wars.