Here comes the Pope, whose disposition for bad news, one may hope, is a strong one, inasmuch as the U.S. media keep dishing out the bad tidings. The media theme is that, whatever else His Holiness may find here, in addition to an endless diet of presidential campaign news, he will find a flock looking askance at him.
"A growing segment of U.S. Catholics," says a Catholic professor quoted in the Washington Post, "are essentially developing their own religion, in tension with the hierarchy but vibrant and spiritual." The Post notes that more Catholics than members of the public at large support legal protections for same-sex unions, as well as for the legality of abortion "in all or most cases." Additionally, the paper says, "large swaths of Catholics also part ways with (Pope) Benedict’s teachings on immigration, the Iraq war and capital punishment."
A New York Times headline writer calls U.S. Catholics "pained and uncertain." Just 22 percent of American Catholics, according to a poll by an arm of the Jesuit-run Georgetown University, profess themselves "very satisfied" with their bishops, whereas nearly the same percentage are "somewhat dissatisfied."
Were the papacy elective — which it is, just not in the American sense — Chris Matthews and Charlie Gibson might be posing the earnest question: How long can this papacy last? There would be echoes of the matter on "Oprah Winfrey." It could be observed when a leader loses his "base vote" (not that Benedict is quite there, mind you) the deathwatch begins. And so on, because that’s what makes news these days, pal: Leaders in Trouble. It helps explain our endless diet of presidential campaign news.
A point worth noting about Pope Benedict XVI is how much longer the game he is in has lasted than the one in which Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain currently figure. The very first pope was one Simon Peter, a fisherman of repute, known as the "Rock." This Peter was an individual who combined strength with fragility. His low moment: the three-time denial of his master. His high one, perhaps: crucifixion head down, for the same cause as that of the master he had denied. Noted (and sometimes not-so-noted) successors coped with wars, persecutions, schisms, fallings-away, carnalities, calumniations, repudiations and defilements. You name it, the papacy has seen it, and endured.
In other words, the papacy of Benedict XVI — now so "troubled," in news cycle terms, so burdened with scandals over sex abuse and beset with demands for internal change — represents the oldest organized institution in the world: the Catholic Church, known as "Roman" (to distinguish it from its Eastern and Anglican variants). Nothing gets to be the oldest anything without showing a little moxie — and, dare I add, some evidence of otherworldly encouragement.
Prophecies of the papacy’s impending demise — the likening of it to the scarlet woman of the Book of Revelation and similarly unflattering modes of expression — run throughout history. Yet, here comes the Pope, with millions to welcome him to the United States and wish for him all success. The mistake moderns make, again and again, is seeing history as The New York Times or CNN’s account of the past week, when, in fact, history washes away everything moderns regard as of unexampled importance and urgency, "American Idol," for instance. Bright enough just on his own terms, Benedict XVI — né Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger — understands himself to represent, partially at least, the brilliance of the Christian understanding of life, as imparted some millennia ago to the likes of the fisherman known as Rock and to countless disciples since then.
They didn’t take polls in Peter’s day, and not just because Mark Penn hadn’t been born. They didn’t take polls because the truth of God wasn’t a matter that called for yea or nay votes. It was the good news. That it’s still good — despite everything — is the news Benedict XVI brings to America this week.
Exulatate!, as I believe they used to say.