Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church in America

Published April 18, 2008


EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies George Weigel was interviewed on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S. by the Polish daily Dziennik.

1. It’s the first visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the USA. In what terms would you describe the importance of this visit? What are the expectation of the American Catholics? Does this visit matter a lot to the Americans who do not belong to the Catholic Church?

Pope Benedict, like Pope John Paul II, is regarded as a moral reference point by many Americans, so his visit will touch people far beyond the Catholic community. What he says to the world about moral reason from the rostrum of the U.N. will be of importance globally. The United States is one of the few countries in the West in which religious and moral themes play a large role in public life, so the pope will be speaking a language that many Americans can understand.

2. What is the American Church like? If you see it as a divided one, is the Pope’s visit going to unite it?


The Catholic Church in the United States is the most vital and vibrant local church in what we used to call the First World. Its parish life, its schools, its colleges and universities, its social services, and its health care systems face many challenges; but they also exist, they’re full of vitality, and they play a large role in the national culture, beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church. As for “division,” the Church has been “divided” since the Thursday night before Good Friday, so there’s nothing new in that; if the Church were a perfect communion of perfect souls, we wouldn’t have the Sacrament of Penance. Benedict XVI will challenge this vital and vibrant church to do more, and to do better.

3. The Pope is visiting a country that went through a very serious scandal several years ago. As pope, Benedict XVI has said and done little publicly about the abuse until now. Some victims are very bitter about it, saying there is a lot of words, but not enough deeds on his side. What do American Catholics expect from his visit regarding sexual abuse in the Church?

For the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the U.S., this issue is now past: seminaries have been reformed, malfeasant priests have been disciplined, aid has been offered to victims.  The Pope made clear on his way to America that he deplores the abuse of anyone, and no one should doubt his word. At bottom, the crisis that came to light in 2002 was a crisis of fidelity, and the only answer to a crisis of fidelity is deeper fidelity. If misbehaving priests had followed the Church’s teaching, there would have been no “crisis” and no abusive priests; if bishops had acted like the shepherds they were ordained to be, there would have been no crisis. Both priests and bishops have learned from this: there can be no compromise in the defense of the Church’s sexual ethic.

4. Benedict XVI said he would like to address a number of issues like immigration, the war in Iraq or terrorism. Is he there to preach to the politicians?

He’s certain here to remind political leaders of every party that moral questions are the kernel of every great public issue. He’s not here to be a policy-maker, but a pastor and teacher.

On Iraq, it’s important to remember that this isn’t 2003; it’s 2008. The very real disagreements of 2003 are well-known; what is less known is that the Vatican and the U.S. Government are now agreed on the strategic goal in Iraq — a stable democracy that is safe for pluralism. That means, among other things, the effective protection of religious freedom for the Christian minority. Let’s remember that the U.S. Government is “for peace” in Iraq just as much as the Pope is, or any anti-war protester is; terrorists, anti-democratic thugs, and sectarian fanatics are the cause of Iraq’s suffering today. The Holy See understands this.

As for immigration, the Pope will urge America to be as generous in the future as it has been in the past, and his message will be a welcome one.

5. What impact will the papal visit have on the American politics, the presidential race in particular?

Very little, I expect. Serious Catholics will continue to support candidates who are in tune with the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life. Less-serious Catholics will follow another path. Five days with the pope, however important that is, won’t change that reality. But I hope the Pope’s remarks on the true meaning of freedom make a few pro-abortion Catholic politicians think again — and perhaps squirm a little bit. Examination of conscience is always good for the soul.

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