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Pope begins a 'teaching' trip to U.S.

Preaching universal values at the UN, Benedict will urge followers to strengthen their Catholic identity.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer / April 15, 2008

Benedict XVI: A hard-liner as a cardinal, the pope has presented a new public image that has surprised conservatives and liberals.

Pier Paolo Cito/AP

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Pope Benedict XVI comes to the United States Tuesday to speak not only to a US church still struggling to recover from crisis, but also to deliver a message to the world at the United Nations.

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Throughout his six-day visit to Washington and New York, the German-born pontiff and onetime college professor is expected to emphasize the most universal of Christian values, while urging individual believers and church institutions to strengthen their Catholic identity.

"What marks this pontificate is the teacher in him," says the Most Rev. Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C. And this "is a great teaching moment."

The pope, who arrives Tuesday evening, will meet with President Bush and with Catholic bishops on Wednesday, speak to Catholic educators and to representatives of other faiths on Thursday, and address the UN on Friday. He'll also offer mass to thousands at Nationals and Yankee stadiums and visit ground zero.

Pope Benedict is deeply committed to waging a battle against what he sees as a rising moral relativism" in the world and an "aggressive secularism" in Europe. He comes to America with an appreciation for its religious vitality and openness to the role of faith in public life.

He won't be jumping into the political fray, however, though many will parse his every word for its potential impact on the presidential campaign. The pope's messages will have something for both parties, including a priority for the sanctity of life and for caring for the poor. But he'll aim at shaping consciences at a deeper level, leaving individual Catholics to make their political choices.

"Pope Benedict is coming to preach the gospel. He's going to avoid like the plague getting mixed up in the presidential election," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist at Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C.

Before becoming pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was for years the conservative John Paul's "enforcer" of church doctrine, clamping down on "dissenters" so efficiently he was nicknamed "God's Rottweiler." Some worried about a lurch to the right, even some purging of the ranks. But it hasn't happened.

"He brought a public image to the job that he has turned around in a way that surprises people on both sides," says Greg Tobin, adviser to the president of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. For instance, while he has restored the Latin mass, pleasing traditionalists, he's also welcomed liturgical changes liberals like.

And his writings reveal an intent to emphasize the basic spirituality of Christian teachings. His first two encyclicals were on "God is Love" and "Saved by Hope." His major book is "Jesus of Nazareth."

"The pope wants to present the Catholic Church in its most basic, most appealing way, and then, he wants it to have a strong role in influencing the culture," says Dennis Doyle, a professor of religion at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Indeed, this pontificate can be defined by its "affirmative orthodoxy" – its positive approach to defending traditional Catholic faith and practice, says John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.