"Hard-Liner" Pope Coming to America

Pope Benedict XVI is coming to America this week, and the Times is bracing itself. The bias begins with the headline to Sunday's front-page piece by Ian Fisher and Laurie Goodstein, "Hard-Liner With Soft Touch Reaches Out to U.S. Flock." With some condescension, the Times suggeststhat the Popehas some perfectly admirable qualities besides his reputation for "doctrinal hardness" that's hard to digest. (Fisher profiled the new pope in April 2005 and seemed surprised by his personal warmth of a man with "so fierce a reputation.")


Americans often tuck their leaders into tidy boxes of conservative or liberal, charismatic or dull, nice or not. When Pope Benedict XVI arrives on Tuesday to visit America and its church, the overall experience may be one of watching easy categories melt away.


His reputation over many years is as a man of doctrinal hardness, who condemns homosexuality and abortion, who regards Catholicism as the only true faith - positions at times difficult to digest in a diverse America. This reputation, for admirers and detractors alike, is well earned.


But it is only one part of the man. Benedict's manner is mild and humble, his often brilliantly crafted words delivered in a soft voice (and a strong German accent in English, one of his 10 languages). During his five days in the United States he is not expected to scold.


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While Benedict is a hero to many American conservatives - an affection he seems largely to return - he is, by no means, an American-style conservative. The pope opposes the war in Iraq, raises piercing questions about capitalism, is against the death penalty and strongly defends immigrants and the poor.


Apparently the Pope has raised no "piercing questions" about abortion but is simply blindly opposed to it.


But Benedict's legacy may be less in concrete action than the power of his ideas and how they may take seed over time. Perhaps most important is his vigorous advocacy of a church of the most devout - the better, he believes, to withstand the threats of secular culture.


More liberal Catholics, and that includes many Americans, may find their seat at that table missing.


Some of the praise is condescending:


Benedict's critics are not so generous. Many admire his words and a demeanor like an elderly professor still ready for a friendly debate. But critics say that Benedict has made up his mind before any such debate begins - and that the conclusion inevitably falls more on the side of doctrinal purity than how Catholics live their lives. Even those who value his capacities as an evangelist are uneasy with his priorities.


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Catholics who feel left out are more skeptical, but still may find themselves conflicted listening to and watching Benedict, with his wispy white hair and air of quiet spirituality. He has long been aware of this contradiction between his manner and what many in the church think about him. He was asked about it as far back as 1985, as his reputation as "Cardinal No" began to grow.


His answer: that any hostility toward him simply reflected that of an increasingly secular world against a religion that believes in itself.