ROME—Speaking at Brazil's most famous Roman Catholic shrine at the end of a weeklong visit last month, Pope Benedict XVI described the arrival of Christianity in Latin America in terms unfamiliar to many students of history—as the knitting of a rich tapestry with native cultures, rather than the follow-on to a brutal conquest.
The acceptance of Christianity, of the "unknown God whom their ancestors were seeking, without realizing it, in their rich religious traditions" and of the "Savior for whom they were silently longing" was an "encounter between faith and the indigenous peoples," he told a conference of bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Benedict made no mention of the conquest. "In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture," he said.
His remarks caused little stir among the 160 bishops in the audience, but in the world outside the shrine he was accused of skirting the history of slavery, murder and exploitation in the conquest that made Catholicism the dominant church in Latin America.
On Saturday, the pope will meet in Rome with President Bush. Although Benedict is an intellectual and Bush is more a man of action than of contemplation, they have similar opinions on abortion, gay rights and the importance of religion in daily life. They also appear to share a faith in the righteousness of their missions—spreading Christianity and combating evildoers—that's impervious to criticism about the costs of their crusades.
"This looks more like a meeting that could have taken place in medieval Europe—between an old-style pope and a would-be emperor—than a modern meeting," said Michele De Palma, the national secretary of the Italian Communist Refoundation Party.
Even now, two years into his papacy, Benedict's devotion to his mission, much like Bush's, appears to make it harder for him to appreciate how those who don't share his convictions will perceive him.
Regarding his remarks about the spread of Christianity in Latin America, "The pope was differentiating between the actual Christian message, which he believes was wholly beneficial, and the people delivering that message, who were often barbaric," said John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, a longtime Vatican journalist and a biographer of Joseph Ratzinger, the German cardinal who became Pope Benedict XVI. "I think he believes that should be clear. If you've read four or five of his books, it is. Unfortunately for him, most of his audience hasn't."
It was the second time in less than a year that Benedict had spoken in a way that a large group of people might find offensive. Last September, during a speech in Regensburg, Germany, he quoted an ancient Byzantine emperor disparaging Islam. "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached," he said. The Islamic world was enraged, and the pope offered several clarifications, without apologizing, however.
In academic circles, Benedict XVI has a 50-year reputation as one of the world's leading theologians. He's never tried to be a man of the people, a posture that came naturally to his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and turned him into an international celebrity.
Twelve million pilgrims a year visit the shrine of Aparecida, where Benedict made his latest remarks. It was built around a statue of the Virgin Mary that was pulled from a nearby river three centuries ago, by legend transforming it from a barren body of water to one from which fish jump into the nets. On this occasion, Benedict wasn't speaking to the crowds in the basilica but to top clergy in a conference room.
As in September, remarks made to an audience of experts aroused reaction well beyond them, and once again Benedict issued a clarification. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez demanded an apology. Back in Rome, Benedict XVI explained, "While we do not overlook the various injustices and sufferings which accompanied colonization, the Gospel has expressed and continues to express the identity of the peoples in this region and provides inspiration."
Wolfgang Beinert, a former student of Ratzinger's and himself a retired theologian from Regensburg University, criticized Benedict for acting more as professor than pope. "He cannot behave like 'Professor Doctor Pope.' This combination doesn't exist. Embracing it will result in failure," he said.
Experts said that in both controversies the issue wasn't content but treating his audience like an academic setting, in which such provocative words spurred discussion rather than insulted.
Hanspeter Oschwald, the author of "The German Pope: Where does Benedict XVI take the church?" and a longtime Vatican watcher, thinks Benedict lacks a common touch.
"He's missing the 'pastor' in his personality," he said. "What good is an excellent theologian who has lost sight of the people in need?"
He termed the pope's efforts in getting Italians to boycott a vote on artificial insemination and embryonic research as losing sight of modern realities, and something that will "drive modern Catholics away from the church."
Christian Feldmann, the author of "Pope Benedict. A critical biography" and a former Ratzinger student, noted of the Regensburg speech, "He forgot to mention that Christianity has a couple of skeletons in the closet as well. He is a brilliant theologian but not a political speaker."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich in Berlin contributed to this story.)