Pope Benedict the Invisible

April 19 marks the second anniversary of Benedict XVI's election as pontiff, and in a few weeks he heads to Brazil. Not long ago, when a pope traveled to the region it didn't occasion much comment; John Paul II was a globe-trotter who hit Mexico and the Caribbean during his first 100 days. But Benedict, who turns 80 this month, has rarely left home and seems most interested in trying to revive European Catholicism.

On his upcoming trek to the Brazilian town of Aparecida do Norte, he plans to huddle with regional prelates worried about their declining influence, the growth of evangelicals and local moves to legalize gay unions and abortion. The pope should choose his words carefully; on one of his last trips, to his native Germany, he sparked a firestorm when he quoted in passing scathing comments about the Prophet Muhammad. Within days Benedict was being burned in effigy. He can expect a warmer greeting in South America. But there's no denying he's been a disappointment to many faithful there and elsewhere. Some U.S. Catholics condemn him as aloof, Europeans resent his intrusions into their affairs and he's never been popular in Latin America. The region, home to 450 million Catholics, had hoped to see one of its own succeed John Paul. Many there have felt ignored by the man who ultimately did.

Part of the problem is style. The last pope was a former parish priest who recast himself as an international player (he spoke eight languages, including Spanish and Portuguese). Benedict is a colorless academic who spent much of his career teaching theology and philosophy. "This is a professor, a quiet man, not an actor skilled in politics," says the American theologian Michael Novak. "[People] should not judge him by the standards of John Paul II."

Perhaps, but the differences go beyond personality. During his long tenure, John Paul undertook more than 100 trips abroad and showed real concern for the developing world. Although Benedict calls for more aid to Africa in a new book, he seems preoccupied by Europe. His defenders say this narrow focus represents a return to tradition. "Prior to the election of John Paul II, it was understood that the pope played a far more active role in European affairs," argues Friar Thomas Williams of the Legion of Christ.

But Benedict's emphasis hasn't won him many fans. Just before his ascension, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned Italians that "Europe has developed a culture that ... excludes God from the public conscience," and last month he decried Europeans' "dangerous individualism." Also last month, Italy's bishops came out against the country's attempt to extend rights to gay and unmarried couples. Such moves have rankled politicians—one parliamentarian has warned Benedict against imposing a "clerical dictatorship" in Italy—and many of the faithful. "Ratzinger is getting too intrusive on [subjects] such as civil rights for unwed couples and is too out of date," says Milanese housewife Maria Novella Dall'Aglio.

In the rest of the world, meanwhile, Benedict's presence has scarcely been felt. He was nowhere to be seen in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, arguably the most Catholic city in the United States. Nor has he paid much attention to Latin America, home to nearly half the world's Catholics and a key focus of John Paul's papacy. "He's ignored us completely," says Roberto Blancarte, a sociologist specializing in religious affairs at the Colegio de México in Mexico City.

In Benedict's absence, the influence of his church has continued to wane. In Latin America an estimated 8,000 people leave the Catholic Church every day, and according to the polling firm Latinobarómetro, the number of locals who call themselves Catholic dropped 9 percent between 1995 and 2005. The church's decline is most evident in Mexico, which has the second largest Catholic population on the planet. Coahuila state OK'd same-sex civil unions in January. Two months earlier, Mexico City granted new rights to same-sex couples, and it is expected to decriminalize abortion soon. Such measures would once have seemed unthinkable in a society where the Virgin of Guadalupe rivals the flag as a national symbol. But left-wing politicians no longer fear the Vatican. Under John Paul, politicians "used to have a certain respect [for the church] and a belief that it wasn't in their interests to pick a fight" with it, notes Elio Masferrer Kan, a religious historian at Mexico's National School of Anthropology and History. Now they see it as a "paper tiger," as do judges in Argentina and Colombia, who have ruled in favor of allowing abortions in the past year.

Were Benedict to become more active in Latin America, however, it wouldn't likely change matters. His one foray into local affairs alienated more Catholics than it reassured: in October he personally approved a Vatican document sharply critical of Father Jon Sobrino, an advocate of liberation theology. The irony of this was that liberation theology—a progressive Catholic social movement—is already considered a dead letter these days. His criticism thus struck many as mean-spirited and unnecessary; Leonardo Boff, a former Brazilian priest, wrote an open letter saying the pope's sanctions "filled me with sadness" and "defraud[ed] the poor."

It also underscored just how conservative—and far from the mainstream—Benedict is. That will cause more trouble in the future, especially in Latin countries that already believe he is behind the times. Later this month, the Vatican is expected to permit congregations to celebrate mass in Latin without seeking prior approval. This represents a big step backward: Pope Paul VI abolished the Latin rite in 1969, and relatively few modern Catholics can even recall it. But that doesn't worry Ratzinger. "He's an old-fashioned guy who wants to go back to what [the church] was before," says David Gibson, the author of an acclaimed 2006 biography of the pope.

The problem, according to Gibson, is that Benedict "doesn't seem to realize that he's a world leader and not an academic." Indeed, the pope's great misfortune may be his election to a job he was never suited for. With the Vatican facing an acute shortage of priests and nuns and its moral authority tarnished by child-abuse scandals, the world's 1.1 billion Catholics could use a shepherd who would help them tackle present and future problems. What they've got instead is a reclusive intellectual more interested in resurrecting old rituals and disputes.