Miller: Why This Pope Doesn’t Connect

The Rev. Gerald Fogarty decided not to go to the pope's mass in Washington because he's busy teaching that day at the University of Virginia. The Rev. John Dufell considered joining him at Yankee Stadium, but he's got a couple of weddings to do, so he also passed. Paul Kane, a retired lawyer who goes to church in Georgetown, actually laughed at the idea, and Barbara Breshcia, who prays at St. Patrick's Cathedral several mornings a week, didn't even know the Holy Father was coming. Buttonholed on Fifth Avenue the week before Benedict XVI's arrival in New York, Breshcia was perplexed. "He's coming when? This week? Oh, next week. Is he coming to St. Patrick's?" Well, yes, and celebrating mass there, but never mind.

The cameras will begin to roll on Tuesday, and despite what's sure to be wall-to-wall coverage of ceremonial events, punctuated by mind-numbing dissections of the pontiff's veiled pronouncements, the truth is that among American Roman Catholics, excitement about this pope and his trip is remarkably low. It's not just that Benedict pales in comparison to his predecessor John Paul II in almost every respect, including looks, vitality, charisma, showmanship, tenure and popular appeal—facts so obvious that even Benedict's defenders concede them immediately before trying to spin their man's "timid" temperament and essential "humility" as spiritual assets. It's that Benedict himself has done very little to win the hearts of his American flock at what may be the most critical moment in their history.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council, the gap between what the church teaches and what the American laity practices has been growing ever wider. According to a 2005 survey by Catholic University sociologist William D'Antonio and his colleagues, 58 percent of American Catholics believe you can be a "good" Catholic and disregard the church's teachings on abortion. Sixty-six percent believe you can ignore its position on divorce and remarriage. Seventy-five percent believe you can disregard the ban on birth control. Seventy-six percent think you don't have to go to church every week.

These statistics are bad but not fatal for Benedict; after all, religion has a long history of conflict between what the authorities command and what people actually do. (Moses told his people not to worship idols because they were worshiping idols.) But in 2002, an already troubled church (with a radically declining number of priests) was traumatized by revelations that a single priest in Boston had sexually abused 150 children and that his cardinal had covered it up—revelations that set off a chain reaction of more revelations and a nationwide sense of betrayal and disgrace. In 2005, the number of Catholic laypeople who said their leaders' credibility had been hurt "a great deal" by the crisis rose to 42 percent from 33 percent two years earlier. What American Catholics want now—to generalize for a minute—is to feel something, a catharsis, a connection to their tradition, a sense that their leaders see and hear how difficult it can be to be a Catholic in this imperfect and chaotic world.

Benedict is not the man for this job. His defenders know this, or his advance team of bishops, archbishops and theologians wouldn't have been out there spinning in the weeks before the papal visit, telling anyone who would listen how very, very kind and gentle the Holy Father really is. Feeling is not Benedict's strong suit. It's not just his unfortunate visage that puts people off, or his predilection for the more outré aspects of papal fashion (antique chapeaux and ermine-trimmed capes), or his decades employed as John Paul's theological enforcer. It's that Benedict is a Christian believer first and an intellectual second, a man who shows little comfort on the global stage with the messiness of human life and politics. The Rev. Keith Pecklers, a professor at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, recalls Benedict's early efforts to connect with the masses in St. Peter's Square. "He didn't know what to do with his hands," Pecklers says. "He doesn't naturally reach out and touch babies or anything."

In fact, one could argue that Benedict has been engaged in a lifelong battle against the supremacy of feeling—against the idea, so popular in America today, that feelings about God come from within. "If the church … is viewed as a human construction, the product of our own efforts, even the contents of faith end up assuming an arbitrary character," Joseph Ratzinger told an interviewer in 1985. For Benedict, God is Truth with a capital T and exists before and outside humans and institutions. That Truth is the only authority, and that authority requires obedience. Benedict's fans say he is at his most eloquent and inspiring when teaching about that Truth. His theology is hardly radical, but it is orthodox. It's not that he doesn't care about people, it's that he wants people to care more about Jesus.

John Paul believed in the same truth, of course. His genius lay in his ability to inspire and lead a billion Catholics—in all their various and contradictory permutations—with his own humanity. He hiked, he skied, he grew infirm and then more infirm before our eyes. "When he prayed it was physical," a Dominican priest in Poland told NEWSWEEK after John Paul died. "He sighed deeply and made grunting sounds like a lion." No matter what Benedict's defenders say about his sense of humor or his love for Mozart, no matter how they explain away his impolitic comments at Regensburg, they cannot convince the American church that he, in any but the most abstract way, resembles the people he was chosen to serve.

The majority of American Catholics are not naive. They don't actually believe that Benedict will overhaul church teachings on birth control, on the ordination of women or the celibate clergy—many of them don't want him to. What they want, at the communion rail and in the person of their Holy Father, is the unity their church promises them, a sense of connectedness through God with all the other Catholics—indeed, all other people—in the world and in heaven. This is not a shallow or frivolous desire but an urgent one, and when it comes to Benedict, so far these Americans aren't feeling it.

Join the Discussion