ROME — NYTimes -- Americans often tuck their leaders into tidy boxes of conservative or liberal, charismatic or dull, nice or not. When Pope Benedict XVI arrives on Tuesday to visit America and its church, the overall experience may be one of watching easy categories melt away.
His reputation over many years is as a man of doctrinal hardness, who condemns homosexuality and abortion, who regards Catholicism as the only true faith — positions at times difficult to digest in a diverse America. This reputation, for admirers and detractors alike, is well earned.
But it is only one part of the man. Benedict’s manner is mild and humble, his often brilliantly crafted words delivered in a soft voice (and a strong German accent in English, one of his 10 languages). During his five days in the United States he is not expected to scold.
“What he will not do is wag fingers,” said Brennan Pursell, an associate history professor at DeSales University in Allentown, Pa., and author of a new book on the pope, “Benedict of Bavaria” (Circle Press). “He will present what the church offers.”
Vatican officials seem concerned enough about Benedict’s image that they are billing this trip as a proper introduction to Americans, intended in part to shed, as Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to the United States, said, the idea that he is “this tough, this inhuman person.”
Benedict will almost certainly address an issue important to many Catholics, the sex-abuse scandals that racked the church and are now costing it millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements with victims. His speech at the United Nations on Friday is the centerpiece of the visit, and he is expected to speak out strongly on the importance of human rights and, possibly, to urge the world not to use only the military in solving security problems.
Last Sunday, the Vatican seemed to signal its desire to present a fuller, possibly softer, picture of Benedict and his papacy on the eve of his American trip. Even while repeating the church’s condemnation of abortion and divorce, the pope emphasized the need for compassion — “salve in the wounds,” he said — for people who have gone through either.
“In this debate, often purely ideological, a kind of conspiracy of silence is created around them,” he said. “Only with an attitude of selfless love can we come closer to bring help and to allow the victims to recover and return to the road of existence.”
While Benedict is a hero to many American conservatives — an affection he seems largely to return — he is, by no means, an American-style conservative. The pope opposes the war in Iraq, raises piercing questions about capitalism, is against the death penalty and strongly defends immigrants and the poor.
None of this implies that Benedict, who turns 81 on Wednesday, is a wishy-washy man of the middle. In more than two decades as John Paul II’s defender of the faith, he was the driving force in defining the church’s core principles, reining in what he saw as the excesses of the liberalization of a generation ago and instilling a strong and unafraid conservative Catholic identity.
As pope now for three years, those principles are spelled out clearly in two encyclicals, one on love, the other on hope. He also reached out to the church’s traditionalist wing by easing restrictions on using the old Latin Mass.
More broadly, he ordered a crackdown on homosexuality in seminaries, while forcing the retirement of the head of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order of priests, after a long sex-abuse investigation. He worked to open formal relations with China, as he has improved relations with Orthodox Christians, split from the Roman Catholic Church for a millennium.
But Benedict’s legacy may be less in concrete action than the power of his ideas and how they may take seed over time. Perhaps most important is his vigorous advocacy of a church of the most devout — the better, he believes, to withstand the threats of secular culture.
More liberal Catholics, and that includes many Americans, may find their seat at that table missing.
“I like the line that good morals, like good art, begin by drawing a line,” said Cardinal John P. Foley, an American who served for years as the Vatican’s chief of communications. Benedict, he said, “is more classical art than expressionism,” adding, “He is not the Jackson Pollock of the ecclesiastical world.”
But he may prove a surprise to many Americans, even if they may not feel the same emotional connection that John Paul II often evoked. This pope plays on the field of clear, forcefully expressed thought that often angers but also often disarms even his harshest detractors.
“He engages with Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, with all the great skeptics, and states their arguments so well you know he has really immersed himself,” said Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard professor who is the American ambassador to the Vatican.
“What Americans are going to find is that this is someone who doesn’t talk down to them, who treats them like adults and who understands that modern men and women are struggling with life’s very hard questions and that there are not easy or simple answers to them,” Ms. Glendon said.
Benedict’s critics are not so generous. Many admire his words and a demeanor like an elderly professor still ready for a friendly debate. But critics say that Benedict has made up his mind before any such debate begins — and that the conclusion inevitably falls more on the side of doctrinal purity than how Catholics live their lives. Even those who value his capacities as an evangelist are uneasy with his priorities.
“Doctrinal purity would not be high on the list of 95 percent of U.S. Catholics,” said Sister Christine Schenck, executive director of FutureChurch, a coalition of Catholics who want the church to be more open to change. Rather, she said, American Catholics worry: “Is my parish going to stay open? Another is, ‘What about my adult children, for whom religion doesn’t mean anything?’ I’ve had parents tell me, ‘My child had 14 years of Catholic education and the church doesn’t connect with them.’ ”
[That's probably because their teachers belonged to "Sister Schenck's" order.]
Sister Schenk’s coalition promotes a more progressive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, the meetings in the early 1960s that passed many reforms intended to update the church. Critics say that Benedict — who as a young German priest named Joseph Ratzinger was a relatively liberal force in those deliberations — has flattened those reforms in many ways. He and his supporters reject that view.
Difficult for many Americans is his regular insistence on the truth of Catholicism and that it is the only “true” church — claims that critics, and even some supporters, say are essential to believe but not necessarily to say too often if good relations with other Christians and faiths are also important.
“It smacks of the Old Church triumphalism that preceded Vatican II,” said Robert Mickens, a Vatican expert for the liberal English Catholic magazine The Tablet. The pope implies, Mr. Mickens said: “We’ve got the truth. We don’t need to have dialogue with people. We need to proclaim our truth.”
Conservative Catholics, those who are clearly the most energized by Benedict’s visit, say that such objective belief is crucial and does not rule out dialogue: On this trip, which will include a visit to the White House and to ground zero in Manhattan, he will meet with other Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Muslims — a group he has had specific troubles with since he quoted two years ago a medieval Byzantine emperor who called aspects of Islam “evil and inhuman.”
That speech is often the first piece of evidence in another criticism of Benedict: that he seems prone to saying things that he must later retract or clarify.
In the case of the Islam speech, he issued several correctives after violence burst out in parts of the Muslim world. But he has also had to restate himself on other issues, including on abortion and politics in Mexico; a statement that native populations in Brazil had been “silently longing” for Christian missionaries to arrive; on a rewording of a Good Friday prayer in Latin that offended many Jewish groups.
Beyond the heated debates about him among Catholics, Benedict’s words are likely to resonate well with Americans generally because he clearly likes the United States — and will say so. He has always had American top advisers. His old job as defender of the faith is now held by the American cardinal William Levada.
He has often spoken of his admiration for a nation where the separation of church and state allowed Catholics, at one time a downtrodden minority among a Protestant elite, to become central to national life — and the fact that, generally, America is a place, unlike increasingly secular Europe, where religion is allowed a careful place in politics.
“America has been,” Benedict said in February as he accepted Ms. Glendon’s credentials as American ambassador, “a nation which values the role of religious belief in ensuring a vibrant and ethically sound democratic order.”
Perhaps more important, America, with a religious fervor far greater than Europe, seems more receptive to one of Benedict’s central goals: ensuring that the church will survive, and even thrive, in what is often called a “post-Christian culture.” In much of the developed world, Mass attendance has fallen steeply as religious belief is less often inherited at birth. The church thus does not play the same broader cultural role it once did, either through the quasi-national churches in Europe or the now-diffused Catholic enclaves in America’s big cities.
The question, bitterly debated between conservative and liberal Catholics, is who is best-prepared to survive in a secular society. Over many years, Benedict’s consistent answer has been to encourage the orthodox, while ignoring more liberal Catholics. And indeed many of his strongest supporters — and those most excited about Benedict’s visit — are among the most fervent believers, many of them young.
Catholics who feel left out are more skeptical, but still may find themselves conflicted listening to and watching Benedict, with his wispy white hair and air of quiet spirituality. He has long been aware of this contradiction between his manner and what many in the church think about him. He was asked about it as far back as 1985, as his reputation as “Cardinal No” began to grow.
His answer: that any hostility toward him simply reflected that of an increasingly secular world against a religion that believes in itself.
“If it is true that a Christian faith taken seriously means nonconformity with a not inconsiderable number of contemporary social standards, then a more-or-less negative image is unavoidable,” he said in written responses to questions posed by The New York Times that year, when he had the position as the Vatican’s defender of the faith.
“Nonconformists, after all, who enjoy general applause, are somewhat ridiculous figures, or at the least unconvincing.”
The Times’s Laurie Goodstein and Ian Fisher answer questions about Benedict XVI’s papacy and his visit to the United States.
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