Nearly every observer and commentator judged Benedict XVI’s six-day visit last month to Washington, D.C., and New York City a great success. In his first extended introduction to American society as pope, Benedict showed himself to be a man of genuine warmth, charm, and pastoral sensitivity, as well as a shrewd manipulator of the media.

Initially the trip was to focus on the pope’s address to the UN and his apostolic ministry to the Catholic community. Any suggestion that Benedict would address the ongoing scandal of the sexual abuse of children by priests was actively discouraged by some in the Vatican and the U.S. hierarchy. All of that changed when the pope answered a reporter’s question while on the plane to the United States, saying he was “deeply ashamed” of clergy sexual abuse. He subsequently voiced expressions of sorrow in almost every venue. More important, the pope surprised nearly everyone by meeting privately with five abuse victims from Boston. The sincerity of Benedict’s concern and contrition was evident to all.

Unfortunately, while Benedict condemned abusive priests, he stopped short of forthrightly criticizing bishops who, by moving offending priests from parish to parish in an effort to avoid exposure and “scandal,” failed to protect children. More disquieting were the remarks of Cardinal William Levada, the former San Francisco archbishop who is now head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The CDF is charged with investigating allegations of abuse, and when asked why no bishops have been disciplined for their role in the scandal, Levada expressed irritation. “I personally do not accept that there has been a broad base of bishops guilty of aiding and abetting pedophiles,” he said, arguing that bishops were only guilty of taking “bad advice” from experts and psychiatrists. Bad advice from psychiatrists and experts, including lawyers, is part of the story. But the hierarchy’s mishandling of priest-abusers and neglect of victims cannot be laid on the shoulders of others. Sadly, too many bishops were morally insensible to the enormity of the crimes that occurred. Without a full accounting of how and why bishops failed to live up to their Christian responsibilities the crisis will not be resolved.

Having put sexual abuse on the front pages himself, the pope strove mightily, and largely successfully, to return the focus of his visit to its original evangelical mission, “Christ Our Hope.” He did this effectively in homilies at the two stadium Masses and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but also in his meeting with disabled children in New York and his solitary and silent prayer at Ground Zero. This is a priest and theologian and, now, a universal pastor who seems to connect with the people he encounters.

In addition to his appearance at the UN, Benedict spoke to the U.S. bishops, to Catholic educators, and to various ecumenical and interreligious groups. Like most papal addresses, his were pitched at a relatively high level of abstraction and generality, making their practical import hard to judge. (He similarly showed himself to be a cautious diplomat in not voicing any explicit criticism of the U.S. “war on terror.”) He extolled the religious vitality and pluralism of the United States, linking that happy condition to this country’s historical commitment to the separation of church and state. Before the UN, he issued a strong defense of the universal nature of human rights, arguing that paramount among those rights is the right to religious liberty. Happily, the Catholic Church is now widely recognized as an ardent defender of human rights and religious liberty for all.

Benedict’s visit was designed in part to coincide with the bicentennial celebrations of four U.S. dioceses—New York, Boston, Louisville, and Philadelphia. In that context, the pope missed an opportunity to acknowledge how decisive the experience of Catholics in America was in changing church teaching about religious liberty. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), the church had long taught that the separation of church and state was impossible, that “error had no rights.” It is an irony worth pondering that Benedict’s praise of religious liberty would have been condemned by the church a mere fifty years ago. That the pope saw no need to mention this remarkable historical development in Catholic teaching was perhaps not surprising, given his conviction that it is time to emphasize the continuities, rather than the discontinuities, in the pre– and post–Vatican II church. Still, although Benedict taught much—and well—during his six days in the United States, he might have won over more skeptics by acknowledging more frankly that the church can learn as well as teach.


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Published in the 2008-05-09 issue: View Contents
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