WASHINGTON — If Pope John Paul II was an international icon, hissuccessor, Benedict XVI, remains largely undefined in the public eye inthe United States even as the Roman Catholic Church experiences awrenching transition.
This week provides an opportunity for Benedict to establish hispublic image and steady the U.S. church, as he makes his first visit tothe United States since ascending to the papacy after John Paul's deaththree years ago.
Benedict will visit Washington, D.C., and New York on Tuesdaythrough April 20. He'll celebrate Mass in two baseball stadiums,address the United Nations General Assembly and meet with PresidentBush, Roman Catholic educators and other religious leaders. A visit toGround Zero in lower Manhattan also is planned.
The trip comes as the Roman Catholic Church in the United States —with the third-largest Catholic population in the world — strugglesagainst titanic pressures. Among them: a sex-abuse scandal that led sixdioceses to file for bankruptcy and left others in financial straits aspayouts to victims exceeded $1.5 billion; a demographic shift in U.S.religion that has saddled the church with the largest net loss ofone-time members of any major faith; and a fundamental threat to churchorthodoxy linked in part to the nation's secular, polyglot culture.
It is against this backdrop that Benedict, who turns 81 on Wednesday, will introduce himself to the United States.
Within the U.S. church, many conservatives ardently supportBenedict. They admire his embrace of the traditional Latin Mass, hischallenge to Islamic extremism (which inflamed many Muslims butinspired dialogue with others), and his encyclicals on love and hope.For them, Benedict is not in John Paul's shadow.
"He's immediately established his own credentials as a spiritual, theological force," said Deal Hudson, director of InsideCatholic.comand a well-known conservative Catholic thinker. "He's shown he's a manof great learning and culture and not the least bit afraid of anyone."
While Benedict is a hero to many U.S. conservatives, he is not aU.S.-style conservative. He opposes the war in Iraq, raises piercingquestions about capitalism, is against the death penalty and stronglydefends immigrants and the poor.
To many non-Catholics, Benedict remains a mystery: A study by thePew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 32 percent of Americansdidn't know enough about Benedict to offer an opinion of him.
While his reputation as a cardinal was as John Paul II's hard-linetheological enforcer, he's adopted a gentler approach as pontiff.
Those who tune in this week will discover a leader focused on whatveteran Vatican observer John Allen called "affirmative orthodoxy; astrong defense of traditional Catholic faith and practice ... butphrasing all that in the most relentlessly positive fashion possible."
"Benedict's diagnosis is that people are far too familiar with whatthe Catholic Church is against rather than what it's for ... and so Ithink his effort is to try to present a positive vision of what theCatholic Church represents," said Allen, Vatican correspondent for theindependent National Catholic Reporter.
Aside from publicly repeating Catholic teachings on issues such asabortion and the Vatican's long-standing concern for peace in theMiddle East, Benedict's vision likely will be underscored in twoplaces: his U.N. speech and his meeting with Catholic educators.
Benedict has argued that "the dictatorship of relativism" is acrisis of modernity. At the United Nations, he's expected to argue that"what the world desperately needs today is a global moral consensus —that is, a consensus on fundamental moral truths that are universal andunchanging that can serve as a basis for things like protection ofhuman rights and human dignity," Allen said.
On Catholic education, the pope will emphasize the idea that "theCatholic identity of Catholic institutions of higher education servesboth the church and the wider culture," said George Weigel, a seniorfellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservativeWashington think tank.
Emphasis on orthodoxy may seem odd in the United States, whoseCatholics tend to be dogmatically lax. The Pew study found that 51percent of American Catholics support abortion rights, in starkconflict with Vatican teaching. And nearly 60 percent support the deathpenalty, contrary to church teaching.
Many Catholics have left the church: One-third of Americans who wereraised Catholic are now ex-Catholics, according to the Pew study. Thecrisis of lost followers has been masked by huge growth amongimmigrants who are disproportionately Catholic, so the percentage ofAmericans who are Catholic has remained at about 25 percent.
Yet compared with Europe, where virtually every aspect oftraditionalism seems under siege, the United States is a vibrantreligious garden.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church's credibility in the U.S.religious marketplace took a major hit with revelations of systemiccover-ups in many dioceses of the sexual abuse of children by priests.Benedict must address in some way what Allen called "the deepest traumain the life of the Catholic Church in the United States in its morethan 200 years of history."
Victims' advocates said neither Benedict's words nor his actions areenough. They wanted him to discipline bishops who presided in U.S.dioceses where abuse occurred and to develop systems to prevent abusearound the world, especially in developing countries.
"I think he's responding in the way that's the safest, easiest andmost tempting for church officials," said David Clohessy, nationaldirector of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a leadingvictims-advocacy group. "Turn away, do little, issue vague apologieswhen forced to. And pretend it's done. ... We're long past the pointwhere one symbolic gesture or a few soothing words can really make adifference."
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.