Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Forum: Previews of the Papal trip: the Pope's Message to America

by Phil Lawler
special to

Apr. 4, 2008 ( - With a papal visit less than two weeks away, American readers can anticipate a spate of "analysis" stories, assessing the health of US Catholicism and predicting the content of the Pope's message to America. Be forewarned: most of this coverage will be grossly inaccurate.

Writing for National Review Online, George Weigel cites a tendentious Washington Post piece as the early favorite for what he calls the Father Richard McBrien Prize in Really Inept Vaticanology. Weigel makes a strong case; the Post piece is definitely a contender. But there will be others, equally wrongheaded, before Pope Benedict's visit is finished. The Boston Globe has not yet weighed in with its editorial opinion, and Father McBrien himself can never be counted out. This competition will be fierce.

The most popular theme for simplistic journalists is the contrast between the blithe spirit of American cafeteria Catholics and the inflexible dogma of the Roman Pontiff. (If you see the term "Panzerkardinal" in what purports to be a news story, you're probably reading another entry in Weigel's competition.) It's easy to see the papal visit as a confrontation: the Vatican enforcer coming to town to bring order to American chaos.

Against that background, it is refreshing to notice that at least some journalists are ready to portray the Pope's visit in very different terms. Writing for Time magazine, David Van Biema and Jeff Israely explain that Pope Benedict XVI (bio - news) is not hostile to the American way of life, but actually quite sympathetic. Their preview story, in fact, is entitled "The American Pope."

The Time reports note that "Benedict has a soft spot for Americans and finds considerable value in his US church." More than that, they continue: "It's not a stretch to say the Pope sees in the US--or in some kind of idealized version of it--a civic model and even an inspiration to his native Europe..."

It's an interesting, provocative, and thoughtful piece. Not perfect by any means-- is one more reference to "God's Rottweiler" really necessary?-- but the Time essayists understand the significance of a Pontiff who can understands Tocqueville's enthusiasm for the American experiment.

From Italy, meanwhile, the noted Vaticanologist Sandro Magister agrees, in an analysis on his Chiesa site, that Pope Benedict sees America as potentially "a model for Catholic Europe."

America, Magister notes, "is at the vanguard of modernity, and at the same time is the most religious nation in the world." Pope Benedict is fascinated by a society that takes faith seriously, a society whose political leaders invoke religious visions without apology.

But beyond that, the Italian commentator says, the Pope appreciates the central importance of America's foundation "on the self-evident truth that the Creator has endowed each human being with certain inalienable rights." When he speaks at the UN on April 18, Magister confidently predicts, the Pope "will offer the world a primer on peace founded upon natural law, on the inviolable rights engraved in the conscience of each person." America, a nation firmly founded on the basis of natural law, "is a model to be imitated by all," he writes.

Yet the traditional American reliance in natural law, so abundantly clear in the Declaration of Independence, is no longer taken for granted in US public discourse. Indeed it was Senator Ted Kennedy-- arguably the most visible Catholic presence in American political life-- who expressed shock at the notion that a Supreme Court justice could believe in that concept.

So in speaking about natural law, Pope Benedict may be recalling Americans to their own best traditions. As the Time writers put it in the closing words of their preview: "In rummaging through our founding precepts for a path for his own purposes, he might find something important for us to remember too."

1 comment:

swissmiss said...

Sorry, V, this is OT, but I just noticed the jester has moved into your blog. Glad to know he found a good home and I know you'll feed him well. At least I can come by and visit him once in awhile :)