Friday, April 11, 2008

The American Pope

This is a great article that was in last week's Time Magazine. A good read in advance of Pope Benedict's visit to the United States next week.

By DAVID VAN BIEMA, JEFF ISRAELY (Thursday, Apr. 03, 2008)

In 1984, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger dropped by New York City. He was heading home to the Vatican from a conference in Dallas and had saved a day to tour what was then still regularly called the Big Apple. According to Father James O'Connor, who was acting as his chauffeur, Ratzinger sat in the front seat, the better to take in the hustle and buzz of the city. They visited the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the medievally furnished Cloisters museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the way to Kennedy Airport, the car stalled halfway through the Midtown Tunnel, between Manhattan and Queens. O'Connor trudged to the Queens side, where he found a mechanic--who happened to be a Jordanian Catholic, recognized the Cardinal and rushed to his aid. O'Connor recalls Ratzinger, up and running again, saying "There is every sort of person in New York, and they're all helpful." A few minutes later, just after he stepped out onto the curb at J.F.K., someone rear-ended the car, shattering the back window.

Despite such sweet and sour experiences (including one in 1988 that produced the memorable tabloid headline GAYS PROTEST VATICAN BIGGY), the Pope likes New York and what it stands for. "I think he's really fascinated by the city and what it represents," says Raphaela Schmid, a Rome-based German with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who knows him. "It's about people being two things at once, like Italian Americans or Chinese Americans. He's interested in that idea of coexistence."

That observation captures an often ignored side of the German-born Pope Benedict XVI, 80, on the eve of his first pontifical visit to the U.S. The trip, which begins in Washington on April 15 and ends in New York City on April 20, will present most Americans with their first opportunity to take the "new" Pope's measure. Some American Catholics already feel they are familiar with Benedict and his values and coexistence is not an association that immediately crops up.

Benedict clearly lacks his predecessor's charismatic affability and sense of the dramatic gesture. His conservative writings suggest a divergence from a large part of the U.S. laity, whom he regards as victims of the moral relativism he feels pervades Western culture. Given his past role as the Vatican's enforcer of orthodoxy, he might not seem to have any particular affinity for the democratic, pluralistic values that constitute (on our good days) the American brand.

And yet that last perception is particularly flawed. A survey of the 80-year-old Pontiff's writings over the decades and testimonies from those who know him suggests that Benedict has a soft spot for Americans and finds considerable value in his U.S. church, the third largest Catholic congregation in the world. Most intriguing, he entertains a recurring vision of an America we sometimes lose sight of: an optimistic and diverse but essentially pious society in which faiths and a faith-based conversation on social issues are kept vital by the Founding Fathers' decision to separate church and state. It's not a stretch to say the Pope sees in the U.S.--or in some kind of idealized version of it--a civic model and even an inspiration to his native Europe, whose Muslim immigrants raise the question of religious and political coexistence in the starkest terms. Says David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World: "As he tours the U.S., it's important to underscore that his philosophy has more consonances with our culture than meet the eye--some very profound."

What, if anything, does this American attachment mean, either about him or about how he sees America's place in the world? It does not necessarily translate into uncritical support for the Bush Administration's foreign policies or into willingness to overlook the U.S. Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal. But an examination of his lifetime of visiting and writing about the U.S. helps provide insight into what drives the Pope: his intellectual curiosity, his search for national models that can accommodate Catholicism as the vibrant minority in a position that he feels may be its next world role and his firm commitment to combine faith with practical reason. It is also a rather touching valentine and a testament to Benedict's surprising openness toward a very different culture that he sees us as the world's best example of how such things can be done.

Out of the Ruins

The Pope's admiration for the U.S. has deep roots. Unlike John Paul II, who was intellectually and theologically fully formed when he met his first Americans, Ratzinger first observed them when he was 18. As a defeated German soldier, he spent three months in a pow camp but was then allowed to return home and witness one of the great modern acts of charity, the rebuilding of Germany by an occupying force that could just as easily have exacted revenge. Cardinal William Levada, the Californian whom Benedict tapped as his successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), says, "He's of a generation that remembers, gratefully."

Ratzinger's next American exposure came during the momentous Second Vatican Council in Rome, from 1962 to '65. Then in his early 30s, Ratzinger was a theological wunderkind who made his name behind the scenes. The U.S. delegation, meanwhile, was embroiled in a contentious debate over religious freedom. Conservatives opposed it: states must sponsor faith, and the faith should be Roman Catholic. The Americans argued that religious liberty was morally imperative and--from experience--that in a multireligious state, Catholicism could best thrive when the government could not play favorites. The council sided with them, and Ratzinger, anticipating a world composed of jostling religious pluralities, heartily approved. In a 1966 analysis, he wrote, "In a critical hour, Council leadership passed from Europe to the young Churches of America and [their allies]," who "were really opening up the way to the future."

After Vatican II, Ratzinger embarked on a more conservative path. The embrace of religious plurality, in his view, did not extend to an acceptance that all roads to salvation are equal or to a license for democracy within his church. During 24 years as the prefect of the CDF, Ratzinger earned the nickname "God's Rottweiler," savaging suspected heresies, mostly liberal ones, and ending the careers of several old Vatican II allies. Americans were not exempt.

But he also came to respect the way Catholic leaders in the U.S. went about their business. A current (non-American) CDF official notes that the U.S. church is the only one that keeps a "serious" doctrinal office rather than an unthinking rubber stamp or an old-boys' club; when conflicts arise, its bishops are actually prepared to discuss them. Moreover, says Levada, "he seems to recognize that we're plain speakers. We don't hide behind words."

The Pope also admires the Americans' role as, in the words of one cleric, "intellectual first responders," especially as the country's great network of Catholic hospitals wrestles with novel problems of medical ethics. "Through the great sphere of worldly experience that the Church has in America," Benedict wrote, "as well as through her faith experience, decisive influences can be passed on." He has shown his comfort with the direct and thoroughly American approach by appointing Americans to the No. 1 and No. 3 spots in his powerful former office.

The most rapt expression of the Pope's enthusiasm for the U.S. came in a high-minded 2004 dialogue with the president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera, published as the book Without Roots. It bemoans the European Union's refusal to acknowledge Christianity in a draft constitution, and Pera wonders about bringing back some kind of multidenominational "Christian civil religion." In response, Ratzinger cites Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and makes the case that America's Founding Fathers were pious men of different denominations who wrote the First Amendment prohibiting state establishment (that is, sponsorship) of religion precisely because sponsorship would stifle all non-established creeds--which they hoped would achieve full and varied flower.

Of course, no such bloom would occur if the American soil were not already faith-saturated. But Ratzinger believes in America's "obvious spiritual foundation," its natural, Puritan-instilled DNA. He is well aware that this is eroding; he thinks we watch too much TV and fears that American secularization is proceeding at an "accelerated pace." But he insists that there is a "much clearer and implicit sense" in the U.S. than in Europe of a morality "bequeathed by Christianity." He has also given earnest thought to the mechanics of this civil religion, specifying that to affect the moral consensus, it is not enough for Catholics to rub shoulders with other Christians; they must translate their concerns from doctrinal language into a "public theology" accessible to all.

His American Flock

It may be that Benedict, who has sometimes seemed ready to trade a larger, lukewarm flock for a small, fervent one, is studying how to be small effectively. Says a church official whose thoughts usually reflect his boss's: "The American church has always had to live the minority experience, and that's where the universal church is headed." In fact, the American church has not really shrunk much. At 24% of the population, Catholics remain a pivotal voting bloc, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania, where they appear to favor Hillary Clinton by sizable margins. A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that a quarter of the country's cradle Catholics had left the fold. But they are being replaced by a few converts and a lot of (Mass attending!) Hispanic immigrants, and remarkably, such churn is about par across the American religious landscape.

Although the Catholic priest shortage continues in the U.S., the priest-abuse scandals have not sparked a massive parishioner exodus. (Benedict is expected to address the topic on this trip, but there have been no leaks as to how.) Perhaps out of relief that he has been writing encyclicals about love and charity rather than heresy, U.S. Catholics seem to be treating him a lot like former Pontiffs: handing him a 70% approval rating while continuing to ignore church teaching on birth control and abortion.

In any case, Benedict often seems less interested in scolding American Catholics than in talking up "new religious communities ... being formed who quite consciously aim at a complete fulfillment of the demands of religious life." In the U.S., that could mean schools like Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.; Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.; and Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fla. The numbers are tiny--the three colleges combined claim some 1,200 undergrads--but they are precisely the kind of eruptions of non-state-related religious vitality at which he thinks we excel.

There are times when Benedict's love affair with American religious pluralism seems a bit naive, especially when it clashes with his nonnegotiable doctrinal stands. Without Roots had wonderful things to say about Protestantism as the genius of American religiosity and burnished the alliance between Catholic conservatives and American Evangelicals against abortion. But in 2000 and more acidly in 2007 (after he became Pope), the Vatican released documents describing Protestant churches as suffering from ecclesiastical "defects," adding that "it is difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to them." Some of Benedict's new allies were a bit stunned.

When Benedict zings the Protestants or his proxies zap scientific atheists, he is actually engaging in cultural pluralism American-style, which resembles a political talk show more than a stately seminar on the Bill of Rights. The desire to keep talking while airing real differences may also be influencing his policy toward Islam (which, as the Vatican noted in March, has just replaced Catholicism as the world's most populous faith). After a startling 2006 speech in which he quoted a source calling Muhammad evil, prompting enraged extremists to burn churches and kill a nun in Somalia, Benedict entered into a dialogue with Islamic clerics who sent an open letter expressing a more conciliatory if sometimes critical response. None of the parties are departing from their theology, but out of frankness, a tenuous bridge seems to have been built.

This may hold some implicit lessons about how Benedict feels the U.S. and its allies should interact with Islam. The Pope has refused to accept pre-emptive war as just, and a confidant recalls him shaking his fists and shouting "Basta!"--Enough!--back in the early days of the Iraq war. He may be trying to model a clash of civilizations without bloodshed. As Roberto Fontolan, the Vatican-savvy spokesman of the lay group Communion and Liberation, puts it, "Let's not talk about dogma. Or whether my God is better than your God. Let's talk about reason that we both have as a gift from God. What does it tell us?"

Benedict's Quest

Reason is a word that surfaces repeatedly in conversations about the Pope and the U.S. Benedict's critics regularly accuse him of Vatican II revisionism--of downplaying the idea that Catholics may legitimately balance church teaching against the demands of their conscience. More broadly, they accuse him of minimizing the degree to which the Holy Spirit led the council to make substantial changes in the faith. But he remains true to the Vatican II precept of complementing blind piety that prevailed in the church before the 1960s with the rationalism of the Enlightenment and thus with modernity.

He is hardly the first: John Paul II described faith and reason as the twin wings that lift the church. And yet a balanced takeoff has remained elusive. The U.S. is one of the few places where it seems to happen regularly. "America is simultaneously a completely modern and a profoundly religious place. In the world, it is unique in this," says a senior Vatican official. "And Ratzinger wants to understand how those two aspects can coexist." Almost all the things the Pope likes about us--our faith in the real value of plainspokenness, our pluralistic piety and even our wrangles around applying religiously grounded moral principles to increasingly abstruse science--can be understood in light of this quest. If he finds answers in the U.S., they could help define his papacy.

When he arrives on U.S. soil on April 15, we in the press will no doubt be parsing Benedict's every sentence for his opinions on U.S. policy or remonstrance of American morals. But the most important waves emanating from this contact may reverberate well beyond tomorrow's news cycle. John Paul II and the U.S. played as anticommunist co-leads on the 20th century stage. This Pope, more a student of global drama than an eager protagonist, knows that rising religious conflict may be the 21st century's great challenge. He also appears to sense that American power alone won't solve it--but that the power of American values still might. In rummaging through our founding precepts for a path for his own purposes, he might find something important for us to remember too.,9171,1727724,00.html

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