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The Pope's Impassioned But Independent U.S. Flock

Pope Benedict XVI is making the first state visit by a pontiff to Britain, a country that broke with the Vatican in the 16th century over Henry the VIII's divorce.

Some Vatican observers say the view from Rome of U.S. Catholics has improved in recent decades. Among them is Vatican journalist John Allen, who says church officials decades ago viewed the United States as "sort of a cowboy culture with a certain recklessness" and with an independent-minded Catholic Church.

At a recent forum at the Pew Research Center, Allen said the Vatican now has a "real fondness and appreciation for what they see as the religious health of American culture in comparison with contemporary Europe."

The U.S. Church is changing. Latinos will lead it in new directions, including geographically. That's because almost three in four Latino Catholics live in the South and West, shifting the center of the U.S. Church from the Northeast.

Because of the plummeting number of U.S.-born priests, clergy are increasingly being sent to the United States from places of new growth, such as India. About 35,000 lay ministers, 80 percent of whom are women, keep many parishes running.

"You don't have to be a math genius to see that somewhere along the line, it doesn't matter how many you import, this clerical church will look quite different," said Paul Lakeland, an expert on U.S. Catholic laity.

But some believe the U.S. Church is about to right itself. Two orthodox popes in a row have built a clear sense in a relativistic culture of what is "Catholic," the thinking goes. Also, the Latino influx "suggests springtime for the American church," author Michael Sean Winters said. "The Latin American church still generates culture, unlike the American church. It generates art, myth, the things that help people sustain relationships."

Many Benedict-watchers say he believes that the ultimate challenge goes beyond the sex abuse scandal, sociology or politics.

"Christianity is stronger here than anywhere else in the West, but we are at the frontier of the encounter between faith and modernity," said Albacete, the monsignor. "If Catholics can learn how to live here in a way that is reasonable and human and compassionate, it will be a great example for the church. Will we be up to it, I don't know."

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