Pope’s foreign appearance belies American affinities

The Catholic Church, and, by extension, the papacy, has always had a tenuous relationship with the United States.

This is not because there’s anything in Catholicism that’s anti-American, nor is it because there’s anything in America that’s anti-Catholic. It is a broader, vaguer sentiment; something that many people perceive but that they can’t quite name.

To many Americans, Catholicism smacks of “old world,” feudal government. They perceive something monarchical about the pope. After all, he wears elaborate dress, occasionally sits on a throne (called a “cathedra”) and is surrounded by a court of advisers and aides.

Americans perceive the Catholic Church’s culture of formality, ceremony and top-down decision-making as being at odds with the American project; one which is characterized by a resistance to pomp, minimalism in official titles and, above all, representative democracy.

Perhaps in jest, Americans sometimes liken the pope to the British royal family. That is not very far from the truth, for, like “the royals,” the pope, in the modern world, is actually more a symbol of unity than a dictatorial policy-maker.

Just as the British Parliament and Prime Minister are the real governing body in the United Kingdom, the various bishops’ conferences throughout the world, as well as the numerous Vatican offices, are really the apparatuses that shape Catholic social teaching. The Pope, like the royals, reminds the “kingdom” that there is unity in diversity.

Americans this week, either consciously or unconsciously, were reminded of this awkward relationship: between the Medieval, European ethos of Catholicism, embodied in the pope, and the modern, democratic ethos of America.

However, a moment of reflection reveals that our elaborately dressed visitor is, in many ways, right in sync with many Americans and their pastors.

Of all the issues that face Christianity in the modern world, first on Pope Benedict’s list is the spread of secularism and atheism, particularly in Europe.

Recent surveys from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show that, as opposed to 59 percent of Americans, only 21 percent of Europeans say that religion is a “very important” part of their lives. A Gallup poll indicated that while 44 percent of Americans say that they attend a place of worship once a week, only 12 percent of Europeans do so.

In books such as “God and the World” the pope speaks of how a culture of technocracy and individualism, of materialism and self-affirmation is undermining belief in God. Faith, Benedict says, is being eroded by self-assertion, by man’s drive toward understanding, gone awry.

That’s a message that one is likely to hear, on any given Sunday, in any American church pulpit.

The spread of secularism bothers the pope because he sees Europe as the birthplace of Christendom, the place where the Christian church grew and spread throughout the world. If secularism is taking over there, he thinks, what then for the rest of the world?

So, in one sense, people are correct in viewing the pope as a kind of archaic figurehead. However, there’s value in that. Benedict sees himself as a symbol for a cause: Western civilization’s return to its Christian roots. If pressed, I’m sure he’d say that the costume, the throne, and the entourage are all in service of that greater cause.

Surely in America, the most self-avowedly religious country in the world, that message doesn’t seem too foreign.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com. Also view his web blog “Hearers of the Word” at djournal.com.