Pope Benedict XVI has a lot of catching up to do with the U.S. and its 69 million Roman Catholics as he begins his first official visit to the country.
The trip marks the first by a pope to the U.S. since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the American invasion of Iraq, and the revelations that, over a span of decades, Catholic clergymen had sexually abused minors. Benedict, upon arriving at Andrews Air Force Base today, was greeted by President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.
While Benedict’s reserved public persona contrasts with the celebrity status of the last papal visitor, John Paul II, he has confronted all three issues head on. He triggered riots among Muslims by speaking out against Islamic extremism, criticized the war, and forced the church to begin facing up to the sex scandal. The pope, en route to Washington today, said he felt “deeply ashamed” over the scandal, according to the Associated Press, which cited Italy’s ANSA news service.
“Benedict XVI is willing to defy the conventions when he thinks the truth is at stake,” said George Weigel, a theologian and author of 20 books on Catholicism. “You sometimes have to shake things up to get a serious conversation started.”
Benedict, who will turn 81 tomorrow, is coming three years after assuming leadership of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.
A motorcade drove Bush to Andrews, the first time he’s met a head of state there. Bush and Benedict will discuss human rights and combating extremism in the Muslim world, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters in Washington today. They will also discuss Lebanon and efforts to fight hunger and disease in Africa.
The pope’s five-day trip, with a dozen scheduled events in Washington and New York, will also feature a United Nations address, a talk to the nation’s bishops, and Mass for more than 40,000 at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium.
Benedict’s stops in New York, which he will visit on April 18, include the site of the 2001 terrorist strikes, the first visit by a pope to a U.S. synagogue and Mass at Yankee Stadium.
Americans will see “a strikingly different figure” in Joseph Alois Ratzinger than his predecessor, who reigned for 26 years and last visited the U.S. in 1999, said Stephen Pope, a theology professor at Boston College.
`A Rock Star’
“John Paul II was very much a celebrity, almost a rock star in some ways, and he tended to call a lot of attention to himself,” he said. “Benedict XVI is much more shy.”
He’ll be greeted by a church whose membership is expanding by more than 1 percent a year, said Mary Gautier, a demographer affiliated with Georgetown University, although that growth is mostly fueled by immigrants. Hispanics now make up almost one- third of American Catholics.
He’ll also be met with skepticism: On many social issues, American Catholics part ways with the Vatican, with 63 percent believing that same-sex couples should have access to the same legal protection as heterosexuals, and 62 percent saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to Washington Post-ABC News surveys.
Still, the man once known as the Vatican’s “watchdog of orthodoxy” is popular among American Catholics: Almost three- quarters hold positive views of Benedict, according to a March 24-29 Pew poll.
Not Blindly Following
“Clearly, they like the pope, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do everything he tells them,” said Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown’s Woodstock Theological Center. “People ultimately are going to do what they think is right.”
The biggest strain in relations is over what many American Catholics say has been the church’s reluctance to deal with the child-abuse scandal, in which more than 5,000 U.S. clergymen have been accused of molesting some 12,000 victims, according to data compiled by the U.S.
“Pedophilia is completely incompatible with the practice of ministry,” the pope said today during his flight to the U.S., AP said, citing ANSA.
Within months of his papacy, he began confronting what he had called a culture of “filth” in the church. Men showing “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” can’t be priests, decreed the Vatican body in charge of seminaries, in 2006. Priests have been dismissed, and settlements with victims reached.
Many Catholics say the pope hasn’t done enough: Voice of the Faithful, a 35,000-member group, ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on April 8 calling on Benedict to meet with abuse survivors and create more transparency in the church hierarchy.
The uproar over Benedict’s bluntness has sometimes forced him to retreat.
In September 2006, he sparked Muslim protests when he implicitly linked Islam to violence, during a lecture in his native Germany. Vandals threw firebombs at churches, gunmen killed a nun in Somalia, and adherents of al-Qaeda threatened to assault Rome.
He apologized and fostered the creation of a Muslim- Catholic forum. As a result, Imam Hassan al-Qazwini, head of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, said Benedict can help head off a “clash of civilizations” between Muslims and Christians.
“The pope is in a perfect position” to “narrow the gap that exists between the disenchanted Muslim world and the West,” said Qazwini, who will attend an interfaith meeting with Benedict in Washington.
The pontiff’s visit is unlikely to narrow the gap with the White House over Iraq.
As cardinal, Benedict said “there were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war.” Last month, he appealed for an end to violence in Iraq, saying the war “has provoked the disruption of its civil and social life.”