What the Pope Said — and Didn't Say

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Stan Honda / AFP / Getty

Pope Benedict XVI prays during mass on April 20, 2008 at Yankee Stadium in New York.

On the scorecard of the non-Catholic world, Popes — even more so than other leaders — tend to be counter-punchers. Within their churches they are lions, proactively setting courses and slapping down dissent. Outside it, however, they tend to be judged by how they deal with what's on the plate that's handed them. Pope Pius XII got World War II; John Paul II got the beginnings of the crumbling of the Soviet system and an assassination attempt.

Benedict XVI got 9/11, a worldwide issue, and the priest sex abuse scandal, an in-house problem that captured the horrified imagination even of Americans outside the Catholic house. And Benedict's reaction this past week to the abuse issue would have to be scored a public-approval knockout, from his unexpected broaching of the topic on the plane over, to his moving expression of "deep shame" at his Wednesday prayer service with his bishops, to his private meeting with the victims of abuse and his acceptance from Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley of a book containing the names of almost 1,500 victims. O'Malley flipped through the pages with him, noting those who had died of suicide or drug abuse. Subsequently, Benedict continued to at least mention the scandal on almost every day of his journey.

So effective was this sequence that one might expect to find the hand of some Svengali responsible for the Pontiff's handling of the issue. Or, less cynically, it could equally well be the expression of his own obvious compassion and concern for the spiritual and mental health of the victims and the American church. Unquestionably, Cardinal O'Malley deserves some of the credit. He reportedly urged Benedict to include Boston, the sex-abuse Ground Zero on his itinerary, and when Benedict declined, refused to give up, bringing the victims to the Pope.

Papal visits are pastoral visits — that is, they are concerned with the encouraging and healing of a Pope's flock, not the formation of policy. And yet a pastoral statement as affecting as this one is something of a promissory note for subsequent action. At a TIME magazine luncheon for Cardinal William Levada, Benedict's successor as head of the Vatican doctrinal office (the one in charge of the most egregious sex abuse cases), we asked whether the Vatican intended to deal with the one part of the sex scandal that seems outstanding: beyond attending to victims and taking abusers out of commission, would the Vatican sanction any supervisors and bishops who "aided and abetted" the priest-predators?

The Cardinal took issue with the question, denying that there was "a generation" of bishops involved, or that they "aided and abetted." Some bishops, he said, had come to him saying that they had acted on bad psychiatric diagnoses at a time when the high recidivism rate of sexual predators was little known. At the same lunch, he hinted to reporters that the Vatican was engaged in possible changes in church law that would enable it to deal with the scandal more nimbly. In fact, his response was not clear enough to project a significant policy initiative, and we'll have to wait and see if the Pope feels the need to fit new actions to brave words. Noted Janice McKay, a parishioner with a 21-year-old son, after Sunday morning Mass at St. Richard Catholic Church in Miami: "Yes, I think he's helped American Catholics feel a little better about the church because he made the effort in a very forthright way. What I don't think I heard enough from him was, 'What are we going to do about it now?'"

Other areas where the press's (if not the public's) appetite for policy outstripped the Pope's was a range of issues that he either soft-pedaled or failed to pronounce on at all this week. He did not address Iraq. He did not make any grand statements about conflict or dialogue with Islam, a dynamic that had dominated previous trips abroad. He did not address the question of denying communion to pro-choice politicians, although he did call their actions a "scandal." Nor did he deliver a major dressing-down of liberal Catholic educators that some had anticipated during his visit to Washington's Catholic University, although he did present some interesting philosophical arguments that could have served as a platform for harsher critique.

But the perils of getting specific on policy were underlined after Benedict made some admirably nuanced comments about immigration: rather than simply restate the U.S. bishops' position that there should be a "viable" path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, he recommended hospitality in the short term, but said the long-term solution to the problem was to help raise the quality of life in the countries they are fleeing. Apparently, even that was too much for Representative Tom Tancredo, a Catholic-turned-evangelical Presbyterian and illegal-immigration foe, who engaged what might be called a bit of old-school Catholic-baiting by sniping that Benedict's comments "may have had less to do with spreading the gospel than... recruiting new members to his church."

In fact, Benedict did court American Hispanics during the trip, a wise move given that they will make up the majority of U.S. Catholics at some point in the next few decades. But once again, his blandishments were symbolic — he spoke a fair amount of Spanish — rather than polemical. And as the trip drew to a close and the excitement over his sex-scandal responses quieted, it became increasingly clear that although this supposedly "interim" Pope will never be, as Bono once called John Paul II, the rock-'n'-roll style "front man" for his church, he has grown fully into the public aspect of the role. At the North Tower footprint at Ground Zero on Sunday, he kneeled in silent prayer for a full two and a half minutes, the moment made all the more dramatic by the morning's mantle of heavy fog.

Some helpful pollsters may soon tell us what American Catholics — and Americans in general — made of Benedict's week. Some churchgoers expressed to us the sentiment that Benedict had succeeded not only in putting them more at ease regarding his understanding of the abuse scandal, but had gone a long way in turning himself into a moral icon on a par with his religious importance as Christ's vicar. Yet not everyone is so impressed. Asked today if the trip had made her feel better about the church, a mother of young girls at the Miami church pursed her lips and said "No, not really. We've still got a long way to go."

When he appeared on Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, however, the New York fog had lifted, and cheers chased the white Popemobile like a cresting wave as it trundled through foul territory. When it stopped and Benedict disembarked, there was a roar. The Pope stepped down, surveying his journey's final stop, soaked it all up and beamed. — with reporting by Tim Padgett/Miami