With U.S. visit, pope projects softer image
But questions remain about next steps in the sexual-abuse crisis and outreach to young Catholics.
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Pope Benedict's positive approach during his visit had an impact on Catholic educators as well, with a speech to the heads of colleges, universities, and schools.Skip to next paragraph
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"He put the issues on a very different footing from that of the last 10 years," says Dr. Lakeland. "The pressure is on to do what Catholic institutions should do – promote both faith and reason – but without this cloud of prescriptions or sanctions over their heads."
From the welcome on the White House lawn to the stop at ground zero, Pope Benedict won over many with his sensitivities to American history and values.
"He recognized the freedom cherished by Americans but reminded us we have to use it not just for our selfish interests but for the common good," says Fr. Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington. "And he certainly did a good job of not getting entangled in the presidential election!"
In fact, the scholarly pope showed a penchant for emphasizing foundational moral principles rather than citing specific examples of his concerns. In his speech to the UN, he did not mention the Iraq war or other conflicts, but he highlighted the importance of diplomacy and championed human rights.
The interfaith gathering held in Washington with some 200 leaders of other religions was ceremonial but inadvertently highlighted ongoing challenges.
When it was learned the meeting would consist of a speech from the pope and no discussion, one of the Muslim groups declined the invitation and sent a letter calling for genuine dialogue. Jewish groups had already raised concerns about a Good Friday prayer. They won a brief private meeting after the speech.
"He spoke to the controversy but did not completely clarify it," says Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, interfaith director for the American Jewish Committee. Yet the overall gathering "was meaningful," Mr. Greenebaum says. "I sensed he cared deeply about ... being with the groups."
The grandfatherly image visible as the pope traveled in his popemobile and opened his arms to huge crowds at the stadiums could bring renewal to the church, some suggest. "He projects gentleness and humility, very different from his reputation as 'Cardinal No' because of his affirmation of all the 'nos' in the church – no birth control, no abortion," no ordained women, says Michele Dillon, who teaches sociology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Still, such a trip will not change people's views on church teachings or on how the church needs to change. "The criticisms will remain," she adds, "but for many there will be a new respect."
Others, though, say some issues will require much deeper and more serious engagement by the pope. Donna Freitas, author of "Sex and the Soul," a study of religion and sexuality on college campuses, has taught young Catholics and interviewed many about their faith lives.
Apart from a small group of orthodox youths, "your average young Catholic doesn't feel the teachings have relevance to their lives," she says. "There's not just apathy but anger and frustration."
Aside from the sexual-abuse crisis, she says, the most important issue is how to reach young Catholics in a lasting way. "They need to feel attended to, rather than just being indoctrinated," she says. "They are the church's future."