The Pope Faces His US Flock

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Jim Watson / Getty

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd during mass at Nationals Park in Washington, DC, on April 17, 2008.

"Dear Brother Bishops," began Pope Benedict XVI in his 55-minute wide-ranging speech and commentary Wednesday following a prayer service to American bishops at the capital's National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Of course, the Bishop of Rome is very much the first among equals in this ecclesiastical fraternity, the boss from Rome paying a visit to one of his the key affiliates. Indeed, one should look at this speech much as if Benedict were a CEO making a major address to upper management, his words as a kind of spiritual "action plan." As always, improving the organization involves the kind of frank talk that the CEO usually likes to keep behind closed doors. But in this case, the "doors" were open: the reporters scribbling and the TV cameras on. A look at some of Benedict's key talking points:

Benedict restated the "deep shame" at the scandal that he first announced on the plane to Washington; and recalled how individual bishops have spoken to him about "the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior." But the Pontiff also seconded American Cardinal Francis George's introductory statement that the abuse was "sometimes very badly handled" by the Church hierarchy. The acknowledgement that guilt might rest not only with pedophile priests, but with members of the church hierarchy, provoked surprise. "That is significant, that's new," said Fr. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, who famously lost a previous job because of Cardinal Ratzinger. "John Paul II never said that." Adds Fr. James Martin, at Reese's old shop, the Jesuit magazine America, "I am proud that he is looking this squarely in the face."

However, the Pope also made a point of placing the response to the scandal in "a wider context of sexual mores," citing pornography and the decline of traditional family models. "What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?" It remains to be seen which Catholics will find most meaningful: Benedict's groundbreaking but guarded admission or his contextualization of abuse in what he sees as a general U.S. trend toward loose, if legal sexual practices.

For many years and more frequently in the past month, Benedict has been lauding America's vigorous piety, which he has said is partially a result of the First Amendment's leveling the religious playing field and ensuring competitive vigor by forbidding the government to pick an "established" church. The Pope has called it a "positive secularism," in contrast to what he considers outright government hostility to religion in Europe. He expressed this admiration to President Bush this morning. But in front of his bishops, for the first time, Benedict gave vent to an idea that he has usually presented only as a brief, if dark, caveat: that it is not enough for Americans "to count on this tradition," because its "foundations are being slowly undermined."

The dropping of this other shoe makes the Pope seem more consistent, since there is much he clearly dislikes about American materialism and pop culture. Today he explained that "perhaps," after all, America's brand of secularism "poses a particular problem: it allows for professing belief in God... but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith can become a passive acceptance... without practical relevance for everyday life. The result is a growing separation of faith from life." Combined with what he called our "individualistic and eclectic approach to faith," he said this can lead to what he noted St. Paul termed a temptation to "conform to the spirit of the age." The Pope then gave a pointed example: "We have seen this emerge in an acute way in the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion."

Benedict's worries about American and Catholic faith led him to a related criticism: a fear regarding the advanced corrosion of families, whose welfare (the Catholic ones, at least) he said is the American bishops' specific responsibility. He explained that as children become adults, a "healthy family life" is a model not only for respect for proper authority, concern for the weak, and cooperation as we become adults, but for harmony among nations, all of which he feels are threatened. Although the words "healthy family life" in the U.S. usually precede a polemic against gay rights, Benedict's concerns seemed almost to predate that movement. "How can we not be dismayed," he asked, about "the sharp decline of the family as a basic element of Church and society." Divorce and infidelity are increasing here, he said, while "some young Catholics" are increasingly putting off marriage or failing to distinguish it from cohabitation, resulting in an "alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States."

Benedict is at his best when he's thinking spiritually and strategically at once. He has clear ideas about how his Church can renew itself in the face of modern secularism. He told the American bishops to preach the ancient traditions of the faith in clear and inspirational terms, shrewdly noting that "if this seems counter-cultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture." In light of secularism on one hand and competing religions on the other, Benedict urged his lieutenants to preach the Gospel "as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems."

He continued: "The Church in America, at this point in her history, is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it in an engaging and imaginative way, to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfillment." Said he: "I think in particular of our need to speak to the hearts of young people who, despite their constant exposure to messages contrary to the Gospel, continue to thirst for authenticity, goodness and truth." Key to all this is prayer itself, which can even address the nagging vocations shortage in America by allowing a would-be priest to know that it is his destiny. "If they know how to pray, they can be trusted to know what to do with God's call."