Here's the editorial from the latest issue of Our Sunday Visitor, and feel free to leave comments:
It was a uniquely American moment: Ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States, pollsters went to work to determine the pontiff's approval rating.
For the record, 74 percent of Catholics and 52 percent of all Americans view Pope Benedict favorably, according to the Pew Forum. "Although a majority of Catholics (58 percent) continue to say the pope is conservative," Pew reports, "this number is considerably less than the more than two-thirds (68 percent) who viewed the pope this way in August 2007."
Polling numbers, approval ratings and conservative/liberal labels may say something interesting about us, but they offer very little of value about the pope.
Because the demands of the Gospel don't fit neatly into our partisan framework (a fact of which Catholics in this presidential election season are excruciatingly aware), the pope can seem a bundle of contradictions. And if we as Catholics don't resist the partisan model, we risk reducing our practice of religion to another sort of political sport: "Are the conservatives or liberals in ascendancy in the Vatican, in the bishops' conference, in our parish? Who's winning?"
Of course, truth matters, especially spiritual truths. The more engaged in our faith we become, the more we "take sides" in a commitment that has real consequences for how we act and become.
But there's a danger to which we Americans are especially prone to adopt the dominant cultural attitude of polarization that pits "us" against "them." It's especially those areas about which we are most passionate (and in which we can do potentially the most good) that we are tempted to create the fiercest enemies.
The pope's nuncio to the United States expressed some frustration at this recently when asked about speculation that the pope would "reprimand" Catholic educators during his visit.
"The problem is that there are too many people here who would like to be the pope ... and who attribute to themselves a strong sense of their own infallibility!" the papal ambassador said.
Our rich Catholic tradition proposes a different model, outlined in a remarkable essay we publish this week by John Cavadini, chair of theology at the University of Notre Dame (see Page 14).
"The more our action and our perspective are formed in contempt, in a 'looking down' or despising of the world 'out there' as evil and our own action and perspective as good, the more we are really staring in fascination at the Angel of Darkness," Cavadini writes.
Why? Because while God does not love evil -- which only "exists" as a lack or corruption of good -- he loves the world so much that he declares "ultimate solidarity" with it by sending his son, Jesus, to stay among us.
"Love reveals evil, and so 'judges' it," Cavadini writes. "Love is the only thing that can 'judge,' that can separate the evil that is entangled, wherever it exists, with the good."
Seen in this light, the "confusion" about whether this pope is liberal or conservative, with us or with them, vanishes. His lack of authoritarian slap downs are no longer puzzling, nor is it "surprising" that his first two encyclicals were on love and hope, and his third one will be on social justice.
A great healing to our polarized Church can come when we see Pope Benedict for what he is: shepherd and leader, inheritor of the Catholic tradition who, in line with his predecessor, and his predecessor's predecessor, is seeking not to divide the world or turn us against each other, but to lead all souls to Christ.