America, after all, was the mothership of the material goods flooding and corrupting his beloved Europe and the rest of the world. America's brand of spirituality was home-brewed, indifferent to institutions like the church. And Americans continued to support the practice that shocked him the most: the death penalty.
In the pews here, he faced a laity star-struck but not especially loyal. Very few Catholic Americans agree with the pope's teaching that even sex within marriage should have procreation in mind. His inflexibility on this question, coupled with his unwillingness to deliver a strong rebuke of the bishops involved in the sex abuse scandal, meant "the credibility of the church on sexual matters was diminished or destroyed," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
Each time an encyclical was anticipated, many Catholics, especially in the United States, waited for a shift in policy. And each time they were disappointed, as the pope reinforced church orthodoxy on the role of women, sexual ethics, homosexuality. The pope enforced his rulings by appointing a huge percentage of the bishops and cardinals now serving worldwide, more than 90 percent in the United States alone, men who would be faithful to his vision.
To the Catholics who felt betrayed by how little he changed the church, his popularity was a kind of trick, the thing that most reminded them of the gap between what he appeared to be and what he was. "Because of his travels and television, he may have more prestige than any pope in history," said McBrien. "But he has very little influence on the lives of Catholic lay people. They see him and cheer for him. But there's not much substance" in his effect on them.
Ultimately, he was hard to categorize in the American context. The terms liberal and conservative "just don't apply to him," said Glendon, the philosopher. He opposed abortion and the death penalty; he was equally passionate about the role of the male priesthood as he was about workers' rights. Conservatives accepted his teachings on morality but played down his emphasis on social justice and the limits of the free market. Liberals did the opposite. "But you can't pick and choose," Glendon said.
The final years of his papacy were often defined by his physical limitations. Rumors would circulate that he was canceling a trip; he almost always showed up, but was barely able to move, his every clearly enunciated word a grand triumph. "A soul leading a body," his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, often said during this period, and the sentiment could be read as either excruciating or inspiring.
In the end, though, he could not win over everyone, and his tenure ended for him with many disappointments.
He left his beloved Europe cold to his charms, more secular than ever. He left America more adoring than faithful. His evangelization of the Third World had only limited effect. But maybe he found spiritual fulfillment in his disappointments. The example of Jesus teaches nobility in suffering, so perhaps the pope's leadership can ultimately be measured not only by its accomplishments but also by its scars.