Pope Benedict XVI, criticised for being culturally tone-deaf after remarks he made about jihad in 2006, has a chance to show his softer side this week as he makes his first visit to the United States as pope. He faces institutional, social, and political challenges.
The visit may bring a much-needed boost to the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, which was rocked by a clergy sex abuse scandal in2002 and has seen a decline in the number of priests ordained. Boston,the initial epicentre of the sex scandal, in which 5,000 clergy members were accused of abusing 12,000 children, is not on the Pope's itinerary-- yet a Papal ambassador has said Benedict will address the scandal more than once. All religious groups surveyed, including Catholics themselves, accused Church officials of covering up cases of sexual abuse rather than dealing with the problem.
Benedict has a challenge to remain apolitical in a nation consumed by a heated presidential election campaign. He may choose to steer clear of issues that have particular resonance for Republican and Democrat voters. On the Republican side, these would be stem cell research, same-sex marriage and policies that undermine the traditional family. He may also avoid traditional Democrat battlegrounds such as the war in Iraq, voicing support for immigrants and denouncing 'inhumane' capitalism.
Today, Catholics are quite divided politically. The high point of Democratic identification among Catholics came in 1960, when John F.Kennedy ran for the presidency and became the first and only Catholic to be elected president of the United States. Since then, Catholics have become markedly less Democratic. The Pew Forum writes that In the1970s, a strong Republican contingent began to develop among white Catholics, and many Catholics became independents.
Such challenges require a gossamer-light touch in dealings with a sound-bite thirsty media and personal warmth. Yet ever since the white smoke sighed from the Sistine Chapel chimney, there have been accusations that the Pope is too intellectual for his function.
Benedict, who relies on meticulously researched speeches rather than symbolic gestures, is less popular than his predecessor. A poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that Benedict is viewed favourably by 52% of Americans -- about 18% view the pontiff unfavourably. Yet about 30% of those surveyed said they did not know enough about him to offer an opinion. Fewer had a negative opinion of John Paul, despite the former Polish pontiff's inflexibility on social issues and doctrinal conservatism. John Paul also enjoyed better name recognition: in June 1996, polls showed that only 11% of the US public could not offer an opinion on him.
Yet those who have watched the new pope closely say Benedict has not lived up to his 'Enforcer' nickname. Perhaps mindful of dwindling congregations in Europe and increasingly liberal social tendencies in Latin America -- home to half of the world's Catholics -- Benedict has appointed fewer conservative bishops than expected and taken a gentle line with Catholic universities that are perceived to have allowed students to stray from Catholic teachings and values. Biographer David Gibson told USA Today, "The Catholic right is actually somewhat disappointed that he hasn't been tougher."
Benedict's reputation as an austere censor may be hard to shake -- and the pontiff's thick German accent will not help him charm the vast television audience in the United States. Yet if Benedict comes to inspire and teach -- rather than scold and chide --this week's trip could be a defining moment for the Roman Catholic Church and its spiritual leader.