WASHINGTON - Pope Benedict XVI, turning immediately to substantive matters on his first full day in the United States, last night offered a wide-ranging and at times withering assessment of the challenges facing Catholicism here, warning of the perils of secularism, materialism, and individualism; decrying the separation of religion and public life; and bemoaning the decline of marriage.
Benedict also returned in depth to the subject that has haunted American Catholicism for the last six years: the clergy sexual abuse crisis. He called the sexual abuse of minors "gravely immoral" and "evil," said the abuse has caused "deep shame" and "enormous pain," and said he agreed with the assessment by Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago that the abuse was "sometimes very badly handled" by bishops.
Benedict told a gathering of American bishops that they need to do better communicating with the public, connecting with priests, and educating children; he also exhorted them to demonstrate unfettered support for immigrants. And he offered an analysis of the role of religion in America, suggesting that the freedom here has at the same time allowed faith to flourish but also can "subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator."
Speaking from prepared texts in heavily accented English, Benedict addressed all 350 American bishops in the crypt of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in northeast Washington late in the afternoon. Earlier in the day, he visited with President Bush at the White House, where a record 13,500 people packed onto the lawn to greet the pontiff. The two leaders discussed Iraq, Africa, and the Middle East. The pope also took his first popemobile spin through the streets of Washington and celebrated his 81st birthday with a lunch with American prelates, which included a cake in the shape of St. Peter's Basilica, according to Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston.
In his first papal trip to the United States, Benedict made it clear that he is taking each of his speaking roles extremely seriously. Last night he offered a 6,000-word scholarly assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of his American flock, and, in particular, their spiritual leaders, the bishops.
"Today, the Catholic community you serve is one of the largest in the world, and one of the most influential," he said. He praised Americans for their generosity and their religious fervor but said there is too much separation between religious belief and political beliefs. In particular, he decried "the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion," but he also criticized Catholics who "ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized," who "promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching," and who "adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being, from conception to natural death."
His critique would encompass nearly every Catholic politician in America, namely the many liberal Catholic Democrats, like Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, who both support abortion rights. It would also include the five Catholic Supreme Court Justices, all appointed by Republicans, who yesterday joined a majority opinion allowing capital punishment by lethal injection.
"While it is true that this country is marked by a genuinely religious spirit, the subtle influence of secularism can nevertheless color the way people allow their faith to influence their behavior," Benedict said.
Urging a focus on faith and prayer, Benedict, who was a renowned theologian before becoming a bishop and then a Vatican official, warned that in an affluent society, such as the United States, material wealth can be a distraction.
"It is easy to make the mistake of thinking we can obtain by our own efforts the fulfillment of our deepest needs," he said.
He also said that the American emphasis on "personal freedom and autonomy" can cause a reduction in the sense of community.
Benedict, who chose to address the abuse crisis while on his plane trip Tuesday, raised the subject again, and in detail, in his speech to the bishops. He called the sexual abuse of minors "among the countersigns to the Gospel of life found in America."
He told the bishops: "It is your God-given responsibility, as pastors, to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation, and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged."
Benedict also reminded the bishops that most priests were not abusive but said that it is vitally important that abusive priests be kept from children. He acknowledged that many priests have been having a difficult time because of the crisis, telling the bishops, "A vital part of your task is to strengthen relationships with your clergy, especially in those cases where tension has arisen between priests and their bishops in the wake of the crisis."
But he went further, arguing that the sexual abuse crisis requires a "wider context," which is the sexualization of Western culture. "What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?" he asked. "We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society."
The speech drew mixed reviews. O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, praised the talk, saying, "it touched on every theme imaginable," and that Benedict is "a born teacher."
"It was a pretty hopeful address, at the same time recognizing the many challenges that the church faces in our country and our world," O'Malley said.
But abuse victims and their advocates continued to react critically. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called on Benedict to discipline bishops for failing to act against abusers.
The speech to the bishops was the final event of a day that began with a picture-perfect morning on the South Lawn of the White House, where the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" twice to the pope, once impromptu and once accompanied by the soprano Kathleen Battle, who also sang a rendition of the Lord's Prayer.
Bush, who is a member of the United Methodist Church, enthusiastically welcomed the pope to the United States, declaring, "In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that 'God is love.' " Benedict, in turn, paid tribute to religious freedom in America.
"Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation," he said.
The two leaders met privately in the Oval Office, after which they issued a joint statement declaring that they had discussed a variety of issues, including the problems of poverty and disease in Africa, the treatment of immigrants from Latin America, and conflicts in the Middle East. The statement said the pair talked about "in particular resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict in line with the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security, their mutual support for the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, and their common concern for the situation in Iraq and particularly the precarious state of Christian communities there and elsewhere in the region."
Today Benedict is scheduled to celebrate a Mass at the new Nationals Park in Washington, give an address to Catholic educators, and meet with representatives of other religions. Tomorrow he flies to New York to address the United Nations. He is scheduled to remain in New York until Sunday.
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com