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Commentary: Vatican Now Views United States, Europe Quite Differently

By John O'Sullivan Pope Benedict, flanked by Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Romano Prodi (left), waves to onlookers before boarding a plane in Rome for the United States (epa) As Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States, his visit is likely to deepen and ratify the growing friendship between the Vatican and Washington.

To be sure, there are disagreements between them over the Iraq war, multilateralism, the United Nations, and other hot topics. But they will not loom large. America and the pope will get on famously.

It wasn't always so.

When Al Smith, the Catholic governor of New York, was defeated in the 1928 presidential election, the joke ran that he sent a one-word telegram to the Vatican: "Unpack."

Many Americans in the overwhelmingly Protestant United States of the 1920s suspected that the Catholic Church was hostile to civil and religious liberty. They breathed a sigh of relief at Smith's defeat.

Earlier popes bear some blame for this mistrust. Pope Leo XIII had criticized those American Catholics who thought the church should reconcile itself to such ideas as freedom of the press, liberalism, individualism, and separation of church and state. This heresy even had the all-too-memorable name of "Americanism."

At the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, however, the entire Catholic Church embraced the ideal of religious liberty (due in large measure to the work of the a distinguished American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray) that lay at the heart of Americanism.

The ghost of this heresy was finally laid to rest in 1979 when John Paul II told a welcoming crowd in Boston: "I greet you, America the Beautiful." He went on to forge the close alliance with President Ronald Reagan that helped bring down the Soviet empire. By his death three years ago he was revered as a spiritual leader by Americans of many faiths.

Vatican's 'Rottweiler'

The United States and the Catholic Church were no longer wary of each other. But they were hardly the warmest of friends either.

At first glance, Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, looks unlikely to improve the relationship greatly.

At his accession to the papacy, he was portrayed by the media as an unsympathetic Teutonic enforcer of Catholic orthodoxies -- the Vatican's "rottweiler" -- because of his previous office. Polls suggest that he is still largely unknown to the American public. He is a not a natural media superstar like John Paul but a modest academic theologian. And he inherits the difficult double legacy of the priestly child sex-abuse scandal and the disaffection of many Catholics over church teaching on contraception, gay marriage, married clergy, and sex generally.

In his few years in the papacy, however, Benedict has shown a very different personality from that of the Vatican enforcer -- personal modesty, a stress in his encyclicals on love and understanding rather than rules, pastoral openness to Catholics who live outside Catholic teaching, and a desire to build bridges between Catholics and other faiths.

John Allen, the well-informed Vatican correspondent of the "National Catholic Reporter," describes his approach as "affirmative orthodoxy," by which he means "a strong defense of Catholic doctrine and practice pitched in the most positive fashion possible."

For instance, Benedict's first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est," offered a positive vision of sexuality without "rehearsing the church's well-known prohibitions on birth control, abortion, and gay marriage" and even conceding that a kernel of genuine love might exist in illicit relationships.

So Benedict is likely to impress Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a warm and loving father rather than a stern disciplinarian. If he condemns the "child sex-abuse scandal" in the church with clarity and firmness -- as he undoubtedly will -- but otherwise discusses questions of sexual morality in terms of their effects on the family and social life, he may well strike a chord with many Americans of all faiths. There is a growing anxiety that the sexual revolution, whatever its merits in highlighting previously hidden sins such as violence against women, has also encouraged marriage breakdowns, more births to unwed mothers, abandoned children, and a brutalized popular culture.

Three Issues Will Dominate

Even so, these issues are unlikely to dominate Benedict's visit. Nor will the Iraq war. His (and John Paul's) opposition to the war is well-known. But it was rooted in a prudence that now counsels caution about withdrawing U.S. troops before a stable political solution is reached in Baghdad. Even if the pope mentions the war in his UN speech, he is likely to deliver only a glancing blow to the Bush administration.

That said, three issues are likely to dominate the visit: immigration, the UN and multilateralism, and the rise of radical Islamism. All present great difficulties -- both to the pope and to the United States.

First, Catholic social teaching on immigration has traditionally sought to reconcile the rights of migrants with rights of nations to defend their distinctive cultures and national identities. During the 1970s, for instance, Father Theodore Hesburgh, a prominent Catholic theologian who headed the University of Notre Dame, was the chairman of an official commission that recommended quite stringent controls on immigration. No one considered this at all odd.

In recent years, however, migrant rights have trumped most other considerations in the pastoral letters of the U.S. Catholic bishops and, quite coincidentally, in the policies of the Bush administration and the opinions of political and business elites.

At the same time, a clear majority of Americans -- and a smaller majority of Catholics -- now fears that the United States is harmed by uncontrolled immigration. And, quite coincidentally, Italian bishops are concerned that large-scale Muslim immigration is further weakening the already ailing Christian culture of Europe.

So the the pope will almost certainly support the U.S. bishops by calling for the United States to respect migrant rights during his visit. (In addition to other factors, Hispanic immigration is strengthening the American church.) But it will be interesting to see if he qualifies this obligation by acknowledging the rights of nations, including the United States to defend its particular national cultures.

Second, the Vatican in recent years has embraced the UN as the best hope for "global governance" and peace achieved through "multilateralism."

Today, in the second half of the Bush administration, the United States largely accepts this stress on multilateralism. But the Vatican is still at odds with many Americans who regard the UN as morally flawed, undemocratic, hostile to Western freedoms, and unduly influenced by such cynical great powers as China and Russia pursuing self-interested policies.

Almost certainly the pope will repeat the traditional Vatican line when he addresses the UN. But the Vatican has become uneasily aware in recent years that the UN bureaucracy has become almost an independent power seeking to impose "reproductive rights" (i.e. abortion) and other antireligious policies through UN treaties. Again, therefore, it will be interesting to see if Benedict qualifies his support for the UN as its "global governance" looks increasingly hostile to Catholic values.

Relations With Islam

The third issue is relations with Islam against the backdrop of the war on terror. This is a complex matter for the Vatican. On the one hand, Islamic states are its main allies at the UN on moral issues such as abortion; on the other, it presses some of those same states to allow greater religious liberty to their Christian residents. And like the United States, the West, and moderate Muslims, the Vatican has to deal with the challenge of radical Islamism.

If the jihadists are to be separated from moderate Muslims and ultimately defeated, that defeat will have to be won in mosques, churches, and philosophy lecture halls, as well as on the battlefield. Politicians speak with little or no authority on the vital questions of faith. Their words on religion are not really heeded -- except when they are provocative intentionally or unintentionally -- by the faithful on both sides.

As both pope and philosopher, however, Benedict has been prepared to raise with Muslims quite painful and tough questions on the relationship between faith and violence -- and between God and reason. In his Regensburg lecture, he said that Christianity now accepts that God's truth could not be spread by violence and, in effect, sought an assurance that Islam felt the same way.

Despite the angry riots in the Middle East against it, this lecture persuaded moderate Muslim leaders to respond. A serious Muslim-Christian dialogue between Islam and the Vatican is now beginning.

Americans will hope to hear the pope's next thoughts on this dialogue -- precisely because he raises real and hard issues for Muslims and Christians to answer rather than taking refuge in mildly benevolent cliches about "a religion of peace." He is unlikely to address these issues directly. As John Allen suggests, he will probably discuss them obliquely in his UN speech, calling for universal rights rooted in religion (rather than in Christianity solely) and stressing that these rights are in conflict with some of the rights favored by the UN bureaucracy.

'Wrong End Of European Telescope'

That may prove contentious with liberal opinion in the United States and Western Europe. Whatever differences the pope may express on these three contentious issues, however, he will address Americans almost as soul brothers -- something unimaginable until John Paul.

As late as the 1970s under Pope Paul VI, the Vatican looked at the world through the wrong end of a European telescope. Through that distorting lens, the United States looked quite a disorderly and dangerous place -- Protestant, capitalist, democratic, socially egalitarian, religiously volcanic, and in general unpredictable.

Since then Europe and the United States have changed places in papal eyes. Europe now looks highly secular and even hostile to religion, refusing to acknowledge its Christian heritage in its proposed constitution.

The United States, on the other hand, is proving to be a lively popular religious society in which God is acknowledged, Catholicism respected, and Christianity of all kinds flourishes in a political system based on liberty of conscience. Americans commit their share of sins, but "Americanism" seems to work. And Benedict knows it.

In the immortal words of Humphrey Bogart, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

John O'Sullivan is the executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the author of "The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World"