In 1984, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger dropped by New York City. He was heading home to the Vatican from a conference in Dallas and had saved a day to tour what was then still regularly called the Big Apple. According to Father James O'Connor, who was acting as his chauffeur, Ratzinger sat in the front seat, the better to take in the hustle and buzz of the city. They visited the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the medievally furnished Cloisters museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the way to Kennedy Airport, the car stalled halfway through the Midtown Tunnel, between Manhattan and Queens. O'Connor trudged to the Queens side, where he found a mechanic--who happened to be a Jordanian Catholic, recognized the Cardinal and rushed to his aid. O'Connor recalls Ratzinger, up and running again, saying "There is every sort of person in New York, and they're all helpful." A few minutes later, just after he stepped out onto the curb at J.F.K., someone rear-ended the car, shattering the back window.
Despite such sweet and sour experiences (including one in 1988 that produced the memorable tabloid headline GAYS PROTEST VATICAN BIGGY), the Pope likes New York and what it stands for. "I think he's really fascinated by the city and what it represents," says Raphaela Schmid, a Rome-based German with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who knows him. "It's about people being two things at once, like Italian Americans or Chinese Americans. He's interested in that idea of coexistence."
That observation captures an often ignored side of the German-born Pope Benedict XVI, 80, on the eve of his first pontifical visit to the U.S. The trip, which begins in Washington on April 15 and ends in New York City on April 20, will present most Americans with their first opportunity to take the "new" Pope's measure. Some American Catholics already feel they are familiar with Benedict and his values and coexistence is not an association that immediately crops up. Benedict clearly lacks his predecessor's charismatic affability and sense of the dramatic gesture. His conservative writings suggest a divergence from a large part of the U.S. laity, whom he regards as victims of the moral relativism he feels pervades Western culture. Given his past role as the Vatican's enforcer of orthodoxy, he might not seem to have any particular affinity for the democratic, pluralistic values that constitute (on our good days) the American brand.
And yet that last perception is particularly flawed. A survey of the 80-year-old Pontiff's writings over the decades and testimonies from those who know him suggests that Benedict has a soft spot for Americans and finds considerable value in his U.S. church, the third largest Catholic congregation in the world. Most intriguing, he entertains a recurring vision of an America we sometimes lose sight of: an optimistic and diverse but essentially pious society in which faiths and a faith-based conversation on social issues are kept vital by the Founding Fathers' decision to separate church and state. It's not a stretch to say the Pope sees in the U.S.--or in some kind of idealized version of it--a civic model and even an inspiration to his native Europe, whose Muslim immigrants raise the question of religious and political coexistence in the starkest terms. Says David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World: "As he tours the U.S., it's important to underscore that his philosophy has more consonances with our culture than meet the eye--some very profound."
What, if anything, does this American attachment mean, either about him or about how he sees America's place in the world? It does not necessarily translate into uncritical support for the Bush Administration's foreign policies or into willingness to overlook the U.S. Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal. But an examination of his lifetime of visiting and writing about the U.S. helps provide insight into what drives the Pope: his intellectual curiosity, his search for national models that can accommodate Catholicism as the vibrant minority in a position that he feels may be its next world role and his firm commitment to combine faith with practical reason. It is also a rather touching valentine and a testament to Benedict's surprising openness toward a very different culture that he sees us as the world's best example of how such things can be done.
Out of the Ruins
The Pope's admiration for the U.S. has deep roots. Unlike John Paul II, who was intellectually and theologically fully formed when he met his first Americans, Ratzinger first observed them when he was 18. As a defeated German soldier, he spent three months in a pow camp but was then allowed to return home and witness one of the great modern acts of charity, the rebuilding of Germany by an occupying force that could just as easily have exacted revenge. Cardinal William Levada, the Californian whom Benedict tapped as his successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), says, "He's of a generation that remembers, gratefully."
Ratzinger's next American exposure came during the momentous Second Vatican Council in Rome, from 1962 to '65. Then in his early 30s, Ratzinger was a theological wunderkind who made his name behind the scenes. The U.S. delegation, meanwhile, was embroiled in a contentious debate over religious freedom. Conservatives opposed it: states must sponsor faith, and the faith should be Roman Catholic. The Americans argued that religious liberty was morally imperative and--from experience--that in a multireligious state, Catholicism could best thrive when the government could not play favorites. The council sided with them, and Ratzinger, anticipating a world composed of jostling religious pluralities, heartily approved. In a 1966 analysis, he wrote, "In a critical hour, Council leadership passed from Europe to the young Churches of America and [their allies]," who "were really opening up the way to the future."
After Vatican II, Ratzinger embarked on a more conservative path. The embrace of religious plurality, in his view, did not extend to an acceptance that all roads to salvation are equal or to a license for democracy within his church. During 24 years as the prefect of the CDF, Ratzinger earned the nickname "God's Rottweiler," savaging suspected heresies, mostly liberal ones, and ending the careers of several old Vatican II allies. Americans were not exempt.