Pope Benedict XVI's visit to America comes at a critical time in the history of Roman Catholicism in America. Rocked by the clergy abuse scandal, and unsettled by the death of the beloved Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church in America has been troubled, to say the least.
But the church's problems run deeper even than the recent sex scandals. The church was hemorrhaging members before priest-gate, in large measure because the church and American culture are directly at odds.
But just as Pope John Paul II was the perfect choice to serve as a moral counterweight to the imploding Soviet empire, so Benedict -- by virtue of his life grappling with the consequences of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the post-war erosion of Christianity in Western Europe -- is well-positioned to address the cultural crisis of American Catholicism.
Anyone raised Roman Catholic in America in the past 50 years has had to confront this reality: The central tenets of his faith, if followed strictly, will leave him estranged from the culture of his daily life.
Unlike Catholics for much of the past two millennia, whose cultural world validated their faith in soaring cathedrals, exalted music and sculpture, Catholics of the past 50 years in America have lived in a cultural world that, when it referenced Catholicism at all, usually treated it as a joke.
Catholicism in America is a faith that extols restraint in a culture that rewards license; it preaches abstinence in a culture that celebrates excess; it treats reason as a path toward revelation in a culture that treats reason as an end in itself; it protects all human life as sacred, even the life of a single fertilized cell and the life of a serial murderer, in a culture that, in most states, allows the destruction of both; it values obedience to tradition in a culture that values rebellion and views freedom as the ultimate social good.
This has been the harsh and self-contradictory milieu of the Roman Catholic American: if her faith is right, then her culture is wrong.
This conflict has caused many Catholics to look skeptically at the dogmas of our youth. Such beliefs as transubstantiation -- the belief that the wine and bread of Holy Communion become the actual blood and body of Jesus -- are just hard to sustain in a skeptical culture. It is also difficult for many to view the Virgin birth, the catalogues of angels and saintly miracles, the doctrines of purgatory and limbo, the belief in demonic possession and exorcism as anything other than medieval superstitions.
Many of these stories, after all, were recorded by people who didn't even know they were breathing oxygen or that they thought with their brains, who lacked eyeglasses or wrist watches.
Every Catholic I know has had to address this inner conflict between faith and culture. Some have left the church entirely; others have abandoned our culture entirely. Some have left the conflict unreconciled, living tightly compartmented lives in which the spheres of faith and culture are kept separate. Most have become so-called cafeteria Catholics, picking and choosing among the various tenets of the faith.
Benedict, needless to say, is in an exceedingly difficult position as the head of this spiritual institution. As much as he might be tempted to adapt some of the church's more extravagant dogmas to changing times, to do so would place at risk the church's very identity.
In one of his final writings before becoming pope, Ratzinger addressed directly "Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures," and hinted at the gentle persuader he has proven to be so far as pope.
"The dialogue between those outside the Church and us Catholics, us Christians, is a matter of great urgency," he wrote, adding that "we must at all costs remain faithful to this basic principle of living a faith that proceeds from ... creative reason, and is therefore open to all that is truly rational."
He then made "a proposal to those outside the Church" that may hold for many Americans -- not just Catholics -- potential for coping with, if not resolving, our cultural contradictions.
During the Enlightenment, he pointed out, philosophers attempted to "understand and define the essential terms of morality by saying that these would be valid ... even if God did not exist." Now, the future pope argued, we have come full circle: "The attempt .. to shape human affairs to the total exclusion of God leads us more and more to brink of the abyss, toward the utter annihilation of man. We must therefore reverse the axiom ... and say: Even the one who does not succeed in finding the path to accepting the existence of God ought nevertheless to try to live and to direct his life ... as if God did indeed exist."
He concluded by stating that it is incumbent on those who have found a path in faith not to impose their views but, rather, to lead by their exemplary conduct: "We need men like Benedict of Nursia, who, in an age of dissipation and decadence ... made his foundation at Monte Cassino the `city on the hill' where, in the midst of so many ruins, he assembled the forces from which a new world was formed."
Shortly after writing these words, Ratzinger became pope, taking the name -- Benedict -- of the man he so admired. How this Benedict leads his church through our era of decadence and dissipation may well determine the future of Roman Catholicism in America.
(John Farmer Jr. wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark, NJ)