WASHINGTON — If Pope John Paul II was an international icon, his successor, Benedict XVI, remains largely undefined in the public eye in the United States even as the Roman Catholic Church here experiences a wrenching transition.
Next week provides an opportunity for Benedict to establish his public image and steady the American church, as he makes his first visit to the United States since ascending to the papacy after John Paul's death three years ago.
Benedict will visit Washington and New York April 15-20. He'll celebrate Mass in two baseball stadiums, address the United Nations General Assembly, and meet with President Bush, Roman Catholic educators and other religious leaders. A visit to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan also is planned.
The trip comes as the Roman Catholic church in the United States — with the third-largest Catholic population in the world — struggles against titanic pressures. Among them: a sex-abuse scandal that led six dioceses to file for bankruptcy and left others in financial straits as payouts to victims exceeded $1.5 billion; a demographic shift in American religion that has saddled the church with the largest net loss of one-time members of any major faith; and a fundamental threat to church orthodoxy linked in part to America's secular, polyglot culture.
It is against this backdrop that Benedict, who turns 81 on April 16, will introduce himself to America.
Within the American church, many conservatives have swooned for Benedict. They admire his embrace of the traditional Latin Mass, his challenge to Islamic extremism (which inflamed many Muslims but inspired dialogue with others), and his encyclicals on love and hope. For them, Benedict is not at all in John Paul's shadow.
"He's immediately established his own credentials as a spiritual, theological force," said Deal Hudson, director of InsideCatholic.com and a well-known conservative Catholic thinker. "He's shown he's a man of great learning and culture and not the least bit afraid of anyone."
To many non-Catholics, Benedict remains a mystery: A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 32 percent of Americans didn't know enough about Benedict to offer an opinion of him.
While his reputation as a cardinal was as John Paul II's hard-line theological enforcer, he's adopted a gentler if still firm approach as pontiff.
Those who tune in next week will discover a leader focused on what veteran Vatican observer John Allen calls "affirmative orthodoxy; a strong defense of traditional Catholic faith and practice ... but phrasing all that in the most relentlessly positive fashion possible."
"Benedict's diagnosis is that people are far too familiar with what the Catholic Church is against rather than what it's for ... and so I think his effort is to try to present a positive vision of what the Catholic Church represents," said Allen, Vatican correspondent for the independent National Catholic Reporter.
Aside from publicly reiterating Catholic teachings on issues such as abortion and the Vatican's long-standing concern for peace in the Middle East, Benedict's vision likely will be underscored in two places: his U.N. speech and his meeting with Catholic educators.
Benedict has argued that "the dictatorship of relativism" is a grave crisis of modernity. At the United Nations, he's expected to argue that "what the world desperately needs today is a global moral consensus — that is, a consensus on fundamental moral truths that are universal and unchanging that can serve as a basis for things like protection of human rights and human dignity," Allen said.
On Catholic education, the pope will stress the idea that "the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions of higher education serves both the church and the wider culture," said George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington think tank.
Emphasis on orthodoxy may seem odd in the United States, whose Catholics tend to be dogmatically lax. The Pew study found that 51 percent of American Catholics support abortion rights, in stark conflict with Vatican teaching. And nearly 60 percent support the death penalty, contrary to church teaching.
Many Catholics have simply left the church: One-third of Americans who were raised Catholic are now ex-Catholics, according to the Pew study. (The crisis of lost followers has been masked by huge growth among immigrants who are disproportionately Catholic, so the percentage of Americans who are Catholic has remained at about 25 percent).
Yet compared to Europe, where virtually every aspect of traditionalism seems under siege, the United States is a vibrant religious garden.
"Both for this pope and for an increasing number of senior people in the Vatican, the biggest difference is that the U.S. is not a post-Christian society, whereas Europe, Western Europe at least, they perceive as being thoroughly caught in the net of post-Christian depression," Weigel said. "Religious communities in America have a capacity to shape our cultural life, our social life and our political life in a way that can only be dreamt about now in virtually all of Western Europe."
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church's credibility in the American religious marketplace took a major hit with revelations of systemic cover-ups in many dioceses of the sexual abuse of children by priests. Benedict must address in some way what Allen called "the deepest trauma in the life of the Catholic Church in the United States in its more than 200 years of history."
Vatican insiders say those planning the pope's agenda considered a visit to Boston, the epicenter of the scandal, or a meeting with victims of pedophile priests. Both appear to have been scotched. A Vatican spokesman told the Associated Press this week that Benedict recognizes the gravity of the situation and will address the crisis with a message of "trust and hope."
Victims' advocates say neither Benedict's words nor his actions are enough. They wanted him to discipline bishops who presided in U.S. dioceses where abuse occurred, and to develop systems to prevent abuse around the world, especially in developing countries.
"I think he's responding in the way that's the safest, easiest and most tempting for church officials," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a leading victims' advocacy group. "Turn away, do little, issue vague apologies when forced to. And pretend it's done. ... We're long past the point where one symbolic gesture or a few soothing words can really make a difference."