Pope Benedict's White House meeting with President Bush on the first day of his visit to the U.S. was formal, festive, and friendly, and contained no surprises. The joint statement issued on behalf of the two men after their private conversation stressed convergences. Differences, if any, were left unspoken.
By comparison, the pope's late-afternoon remarks to the American bishops gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception were a bit of a bombshell. Putting aside pleasantries, the Holy Father presented a surprisingly tough-minded and not uncritical look at the Church in the United States.
His text will be mined for nuggets for some time to come. A few items stand out at first glance.
*A strongly worded critique of what is often called "cafeteria Catholicism." Said Benedict: "Is it consistent to profess our belief in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor or the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?" Deploring the tendency "to treat religion as a private matter," the pope declared: "Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel."
*Tough talk about the decline of Catholic marriage. Said Benedict: "To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond, or even a purely informal and open-ended arrangement to live with another person. Hence we have an alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States together with an increase in cohabitation."
*A challenge to go beyond policies and programs already adopted by the bishops to deal with clergy sex abuse and address the problem in a "wider context." Condemning the "degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today," the pope said children need--and bishops have a duty to work for--a society with a renewed sense of the sacredness of sex. "What does it mean," he demanded, "to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?"
*An appeal for reconciliation in the strained relationships of the bishops with their priests in the wake of the abuse crisis. The Holy Father told the bishops: "Priests, too, need your guidance and closeness during this difficult time. They have experienced shame over what has occurred, and there are those who feel they have lost some of the trust and esteem they once enjoyed....At this stage, a vital part of your task is to strengthen relationships with your clergy."
If the bishops were looking for an agenda, they have one now.
-- Russell Shaw