April 17, 2008
Pope Praises U.S., but Warns of Secular Challenges
By Laurie Goodstein and Sheryl Gay Stolberg
Washingon — Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House on Wednesday, his 81st birthday, and praised America as a nation where strong religious belief can coexist with secular society.
But he later warned, in a speech to American bishops, of the “subtle influence of secularism” that can co-opt religious people and lead even Catholics to accept abortion, divorce and co-habitation outside of marriage.
“Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs?” he asked in a lengthy address to the bishops. “Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?”
“Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted,” he said.
For the second day on his first official visit to America, the pope acknowledged the “deep shame” caused by the sexual abuse scandal that has divided and weakened the American church. He agreed that the scandal as it unfolded was “sometimes very badly handled.”
He said the church must “address the sin of abuse within the wider context of sexual mores.
“What does it mean to speak of child protection,” the pope asked, “when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?”
He deplored the “crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today,” saying that not only the church, but also families, teachers and the news media and entertainment industries have to take responsibility for “moral renewal.”
His comments to the bishops, on topics like immigration, medical ethics and attrition in the church’s ranks, seemed in contrast to the festive greeting he received at the White House.
The general tone on a day when he was feted by thousands of flag-waving supporters on the streets of the capital appeared aimed at celebrating and challenging more than scolding.
He found a kindred soul in President Bush, who has made his Christianity a central tenet of his life as a politician. Christian conservatives, including conservative Catholics, have been a crucial component of the president’s political base, and the papal visit gave the White House a fresh opportunity to reinforce those ties in an election year.
The White House hosted a crowd of 13,500 on the South Lawn in the morning, welcoming the pope with a 21-gun salute; a fife-and-drum band; the soprano Kathleen Battle, who sang the Lord’s Prayer; and two rounds of “Happy Birthday.”
The crowd burst into applause when Mr. Bush told the pope that Americans “need your message that all life is sacred,” a reference to the two men’s shared opposition to abortion rights.
The president also adopted a trademark Benedict phrase when he said the nation needed the pontiff’s “message to reject this dictatorship of relativism.”
The term is considered the defining phrase of the papal election in 2005, in which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on the day his fellow cardinals went into the conclave that elected him Pope Benedict XVI, deplored the idea that all belief is equally true.
“Here in America,” Mr. Bush said, “you’ll find a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square. When our founders declared our nation’s independence, they rested their case on an appeal to the ‘laws of nature and of nature’s God.’ ”
The pontiff, dressed in his traditional white cassock and skullcap, said, “I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society.”
He said, “Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth.”
It is only the second time that the leader of Roman Catholics has visited the White House. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter hosted Pope John Paul II.
The pope and Mr. Bush then met privately in the Oval Office. A White House statement said the two had “devoted considerable time in their discussions” to the Middle East, particularly the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Although the pope has expressed opposition to the Iraq war, the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, said Mr. Bush had brought up the topic. Ms. Perino said they spoke “largely about the plight of Christians,” an issue the pope raised when the two first met last year at the Vatican. She would not elaborate, saying, “They had an understanding that it would be private.”
After the White House, the pope returned to the home of the papal nuncio, giving a glimpse to thousands of bystanders, who waved flags and white-and-yellow Vatican pennants, strummed guitars and banged drums.
“It was close,” said Martha Littlefield, 44, who traveled from Houston with 200 Catholics to see the pope. “I couldn’t believe it!”
The pope ate lunch privately with American cardinals and in the early evening met Catholic charity groups. He then traveled to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for an evening prayer service, vespers, and an address to about 300 American bishops and nine cardinals.
The meeting was the pope’s opportunity to outline his vision of the state of the American church to the prelates charged with carrying out that vision. It is the first visit of a pope to the United States since the sexual abuse scandal erupted in 2002.
The Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America, seating for 6,000. The pope met the bishops in the Crypt Church, designed to evoke the Roman catacombs. About 600 guests sat upstairs, watching the proceedings on jumbo screens.
Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago and the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the pope the church is “troubled by ideological differences that weaken not only our witness to the world but the life of faith itself.” Cardinal George acknowledged that the priests’ sexual abuse was “sometimes very badly handled by the bishops,” the pope’s phrase. The problem, the cardinal said, has made “the personal faith of some Catholics and the public life of the church herself more problematic.”
The pope read responses to three questions submitted in advance that reflected bishops’ concerns on secularism, Catholics abandoning the faith and a shortage of vocations to the priesthood. Cardinal George presented the pope an $870,000 check donated by Catholics in the pews for the pope’s favorite charities.
Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., said after the meeting, “We appreciate very much the encouragement he is giving us to reach out to victims, efforts to maintain and expand safe environment programs, and to do so in a context of preaching and exemplifying moral integrity and supporting the family.”
Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Camden, N.J., said: “I felt very happy with his talk. It hit on some of the themes I’ve been trying to emphasize in my diocese.”
Peter Isely, an abuse survivor and a national board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said of the pope’s speech to bishops: “We were hoping for a reprimand. He was looking into the faces of the men who were directly responsible, and instead of a reprimand, he praised them.”
Ian Fisher and Katie Zezima contributed reporting.
Copyright © 2008 The New York Times