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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.