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.
By Michelle Boorstein
Sunday, April 13, 2008

To Pope Benedict, experts say, the U.S. Catholic Church is a bit like an adolescent: young and unpredictable.

There are bankrupt dioceses and empty seminaries -- yet tens of thousands of laypeople are stepping into the chasm to lead their churches.

One of every 10 Americans has left the faith -- yet close to half of U.S. Catholics attend Mass at least monthly.

Tens of thousands of traditional Catholics have clamored for tickets to the pope's Mass Thursday at Nationals Park, yet many more think he's too rigid -- or irrelevant.

But how does Benedict understand this picture?

"At the Vatican, there is an admiration for American religiosity," said Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a theologian and a U.S. leader of Communion and Liberation, a large group of Catholics that is very close to Benedict. "But there is a question whether American religiosity is strong enough. It appears to be, from the Vatican point of view, content-free, more spiritual high and emotion than a serious question as to what is true and what is not."

U.S. Catholics can't agree whether they're in crisis or renewal. All sides describe a community in dramatic demographic flux. Further, it is divided in key ways, including the importance of male clergy, immigration and the authority of not only Catholicism but also Christianity.

Yet to Benedict, a German scholar, the United States looks religiously vibrant compared with secular Europe, with U.S. politicians touting their religiosity and U.S. courts reaffirming faith's role in public life.

The fact of his visit shows the importance of the U.S. Church to the Vatican. At 80, Benedict travels infrequently; this is his eighth foreign trip in three years as pope. And U.S. Catholics make up just 6 percent of the world church, a percentage that's shrinking as the number of Catholics in Africa and Asia boom.

But culturally and financially, Americans loom super-sized. For those reasons and others, Benedict experts say he views the United States as an essential battleground in what he considers the war of today's era: proving that modernity doesn't have to stamp out religious faith.

It's well-known that U.S. Catholics disagree with the Vatican on issues of sexuality, including abortion and same-sex marriage. According to recent Washington Post-ABC News surveys, 63 percent of Catholics, compared with 55 percent of all adults, believe same-sex couples should have access to the same legal protections as heterosexual couples. And 62 percent of Catholics, compared with 57 percent of all adults, say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Large swaths of Catholics also part ways with Benedict's teachings on immigration, the Iraq war and capital punishment.

Jose Casanova, a Georgetown University professor who specializes in religion and globalization, says there is a growing segment of U.S. Catholics who are essentially developing their own religion, in tension with the hierarchy but vibrant and spiritual. He calls it "faithful dissent."

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