When in mid-April Benedict XVI will land at the military airport of Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, the United States will come to the head of the classification of countries most visited by popes. Tied with Poland for number of visits, nine. And with Turkey for number of visiting popes, three, before him his predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II.
This last one, an unrestrained voyager, traveled far and wide in the United States. In his first visit, in 1979, in seven days he reached seven cities and gave 63 speeches. The calmer Joseph Ratzinger, also in seven days, will make only two stops, in Washington where on April 16th he will meet with George W. Bush at the White House – and in New York, and he will give just 11 speeches. But of these, although only announced, at least two are already provoking fear, after at Regensburg the current pope showed the world what fearless depths he is capable of. These will be the speeches of April 17th in Washington to representatives of Judaism, Islam, and other religions, and that of April 18th in New York to the General Assembly of the United Nations.
At Regensburg, Benedict XVI denounced as capital errors of the world today the separation of faith from reason, of which he accused Islamism and the loss of faith in reason, which he attributed instead to the dominant culture in Europe and in America. From the tribune of the United Nations, one can bet that he will take a further step and will offer to the world a grammar of peace founded on natural law, its inviolable rights sculpted in the conscience of every man but also written in that “Universal Declaration” of which we are celebrating the sixtieth anniversary in 2008.
An easy prediction, if one only looks at what the pope said, last February 29th receiving the new ambassador of the United States to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon. For Benedict XVI, the United States is a model for all to imitate. It is the country that was born and founded upon the “evident truth that the Creator has given every human being inalienable rights,” the first of which is freedom.
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With this pope, the United States has ceased being held in punishment by the Vatican authorities. Up until a few decades ago, it was accused of being the temple of Calvinist capitalism, of consumerism, of social Darwinism, of the electric chair, an easy trigger in every corner of the world.
Today these paradigms seem in good measure put aside. The Church of Rome fought with force against the military attack on Iraq. Even Benedict XVI did so. But now they are not pressing for the withdrawal of troops. They want them to remain there “in a mission of peace”, also in defense of Christian minorities.
In any case, the general judgment on the United States has changed to positive, on an equal measure with the continually more pessimistic judgments on Europe. To ambassador Glendon, Benedict XVI said that he admired “ the historical appreciation of the American people for the role of religion in forging public debate,” a role that however elsewhere, as in laws in Europe, “is contested in name of a limited comprehension of political life. Consequentially laws do not derive from points that are most important to the Church, as the “legal protection of the divine gift of life from conception to mature death”, marriage, family.
The Church of Rome has found itself more frequently in agreement with Republican presidents, from Reagan to the two Bushes, than with the Democratic Clinton, precisely for the greater dedication of the former to protecting life and promoting religious freedom in the world. In Cairo in 1994 and in Beijing in 1995, in two international conferences convened by the United Nations on the demographic question and on woman, both with Clinton as president, the delegation of the Holy See fought tenaciously against the United States and Europe who wanted to promote abortion to reduce deaths in poor countries.
And in Beijing, who was at the head of the Vatican team? Mary Ann Glendon, converted feminist, professor of law at Harvard University, then promoted by John Paul II president of the Academic Pontificate of social sciences and today ambassador of the United States. Her speech fell like a cutting blade: “The conference wants to oppose the violence suffered by woman? Right. And now let us take note. Among the violence there are obligatory programs of birth control, forced sterilization, pressures to abort, pre-selection of sexes and the consequent destruction of female fetuses.
In a collection of her essays edited by Rubbettino that are coming out now in Italy, Mary Ann Glendon returns polemically to what happened in Beijing and in the successive years. She accuses rich countries of having cut their purses to help preferring the abortion shortcut of a demographic halt at no cost. She especially accuses the lay Western elite of having substituted for the “broad, rich, equilibrated language” of the International Declaration of the Rights of Man, the “mediocre jargon” of individual desires without duties and responsibilities. Her closing speech was re-published by “Osservatore Romano”.
For these same motives many times, in the last years, the Vatican authorities have criticized the United Nations and the European Union. This does not remove the fact that the Holy See continues to give credit and support to the United Nations as a peaceful instrument of solution to international controversies.
At the United Nations, the Holy See is present as “Permanent Observer State”. It does not vote but it has the right to speak and reply. A campaign for its exclusion, orchestrated several years ago by some non-governmental organizations involved in the control of births and irritated by Vatican oppostion obtained the opposite effect. In June of 2004, the General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution that not only confirmed but reinforced the presence of the Holy See in the organization.
From the tribune of the United Nations, Benedict XVI will speak to the entire world, in which Catholics are less than a sixth of the population. Not even in the United States are Catholics a majority. There are around 70 million out of 300 million, 23.9 percent, according to a very recent study by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted on a sample of 35,000 Americans. But they are still a very conspicuous block, much more than in Italy, and they are within a country of strong Christian dominance, with indexes of religious participation much higher than in Europe.
In the presidential elections of 2004, Catholics did contribute to the reelection of George W. Bush. But the hierarchies did not give indications of votes; they will give them for the next elections. The pro-life Catholics are inclined toward Republican John McCain, those pro-peace for Democrats Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. The authorities of the Church however appreciate that all candidates have given a prominent place to the religious factor.
Because the United States is this way. It is the cutting edge of modernity and at the same time the most religious nation in the world. It is a model of separation of Church and State and at the same time a country with a strong public reverence of religions. The study of Pew Forum ascertained that atheists and agnostics are very few in number, respectively 1.6 and 2.4 percent, although in the media they seem much more numerous and vocal.
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But the most important fact of the study is something else. It is the very high number of American citizens who pass from one religious persuasion to another or who are re-born to a new spiritual life although staying in the same religion.
There is not a nation in the world in which the religious market is as vibrant and the competition as closed. Forty-four percent of Americans over 18 years of age have changed their religious affiliation even more than one time, or have passed from disbelief to faith or vice-versa.
Among the Protestant denominations, to which about half of Americans belong, those of liberal orientation on the theme of individual rights are in sharp decline. While “evangelical”, Puritan churches, some by tradition are proudly anti-papist but today are coming closer to the Church of Rome in the name of the common battle for the defense of life, are increasing.
Among American citizens raised in the Catholic Church one out of three have left the Church. But this loss has been made up over by the acquisition of new converts and by the arrival of many Catholic immigrants from various countries, especially from Latin America.
This migratory grafting is of such proportions that it is literally changing the face of Catholicism in the United States. And in Rome they know this well, because it is a fact that at the last consistory, November 24th 2007, Benedict XVI made Cardinal Daniel DiNardo archbishop of Galveston and Houston in Texas, a diocese never previously honored with purple but where the number of Catholics is steeply increasing, as in other dioceses that are destinations of immigrants, for example Dallas, where Catholics numbered 200,000 twenty years ago and now are more than a million, mostly arrived from Mexico.
If one adds that Mexico is the Latin American country in which the Catholic Church is more vital even among young people, with an impressive increase in vocations to the priesthood and to religious life, one understands an other novelty of Catholicism in the United States: the lowering of its average age.
Among Catholics over 60 the large majority are white but among those between 18 and 40 almost half are Latinos, that is having arrived from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Fresh acquisitions that make up for the abandonment of the Catholic Church by white youths under thirty, the age bracket most eroded by secularization.
In all, the 2007 “New York Times” put Benedict XVI on the front page only twice, compared with the 25 of John Paul II in the third year of his papacy. But with his next voyage Pope Ratzinger will recuperate terrain. The United States appears to him a land of very promising seed. The diocese of Denver, the year after the Day of Youth in 1993, registered 2 million new converts and an increase in 8 percent in attendance at mass.