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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.

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In his speech to the heads of 236 US Catholic colleges and universities, Benedict is expected to stress "strengthening the Catholic identity" of their institutions. John Paul II issued the same call 18 years ago, including giving bishops a say in approving theology faculty, which sparked outcries about academic freedom. But the debate was later overshadowed by the sexual-abuse crisis.

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"As a Catholic purist, the pope believes that salvation necessarily comes through the church," says Mr. Tobin. "He's seen a decline in that strong identification among Catholics and is calling us back to it."

But there has always been an independent streak in US Catholicism, and Benedict will encounter a church still grappling with the sexual-abuse scandal. There have been some 12,000 victims of abuse. Settlements and legal fees have cost the church close to $2 billion. Six dioceses have entered bankruptcy. Many Catholics, observers say, remain skeptical about church leadership.

Although the situation has improved since 2002, "there's a divide between the American hierarchy and people in the pews, and I don't think ... the bridge is being built right now," Tobin adds. The bishops have a sensible program to protect children, but "there is still a sense of ... not fully engaging in a way that seems pastorally correct."

The pope declined an invitation to visit Boston, the epicenter of the crisis, and his itinerary does not include any official meeting with victims of abuse. But his representative in the US has hinted that an informal meeting will occur. Many Catholics are waiting to see what he will say and do about the crisis.

At the same time, he faces the challenge of how to address declining numbers in the priesthood and a Catholic population with diverse views on church teachings. A poll last year found that 56 percent of Catholics under 40 say they'd be just as happy in a church other than the Catholic Church. While a recent Pew poll showed the church had already lost one-third of Americans born into Catholicism, it had a better retention rate than other Christian denominations.

Benedict's firm position that the Catholic Church represents the sole route to salvation has led to a contretemps in ecumenical and interfaith relations.

Jews were recently disturbed by revised language of a Good Friday prayer for the Latin mass that still called for them to accept Jesus Christ. Muslims were outraged by a speech given in Regensburg, Germany, that seemed to denigrate Islam. Other Christian churches engaged in dialogue with the Vatican were upset by his stance that they cannot be called churches but "ecclesial communities."

"He's more insistent on certain Catholic hegemony than his predecessor was," says Chester Gillis, a theology professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

While his interreligious approach is less inviting than that of John Paul, Benedict sees dialogue as a means to promote peace and has taken concrete steps. Most significant, perhaps, was his visit to Turkey's Blue Mosque in November 2006, where he prayed silently alongside a senior Muslim cleric – a spontaneous gesture that resonated well among Muslims.

His Thursday meeting with American leaders of other faiths will be ceremonial, but he's agreed to meet afterward with Jewish leaders about their concerns.

Plans for the major UN speech are closely held. But the heart of the speech, Mr. Allen predicts, will be a call for a global moral consensus on universal human rights, including religious freedom. The pope sees this as a priority at a time when key players on the world stage, like China and some Muslim nations, don't recognize such rights.