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Before becoming pope, Benedict the 16th had a reputation as a strict enforcer of church doctrine. His visit to the U.S. gives American Catholics a chance to weigh in on the first three years of his papacy - as NPR's Barbara Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: If you want to get a feel for Pope Benedict's papacy so far you can talk to theologians or you can just drop by the fish fry at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington D.C.

Ms. EARLENE CAPERS (Parishioner, Holy Comforter Catholic Church): And what you see here is macaroni and cheese, fillet of trout, crab cakes, cabbage. And did I mention crab cakes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY Earlene Capers and two dozen other volunteers are serving up about 300 meals on this Friday. Today, this African-American parish is buzzing about the pope's upcoming visit to the nearby Nationals' stadium.

Bill Brousseau, the assistant fry-master, is drawn to Pope Benedict's academic side. He's also impressed by his emphasis on the positive.

Mr. BILL BROUSSEAU (Parishioner, Holy Comforter Catholic Church): I think if he continues with his message of hope, love, and charity, it will be extremely beneficial. What he's saying now is consistent with where I think we should go, not only as Catholics, but as a nation and as the world.

HAGERTY: If Brousseau sees in Benedict the gentle pope, Rudy Robinson, a retired police officer, sees him as a theological tough guy.

Mr. RUDY ROBINSON (Parishioner, Holy Comforter Catholic Church): The pope is coming here to say, I'm just the enforcer. I'm bringing you the word of what you should be doing. Now what you do and what you should be doing is two different things.

HAGERTY: Here you see two sides of Pope Benedict, a more nuanced view than what a lot of people expected when Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005. For nearly 25 years before that, Ratzinger headed the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith, which enforces Catholic theology.

David Gibson is author of the biography The Rule of Benedict. He recalls the moment when Ratzinger emerged wearing the pope's white robes.

Mr. DAVID GIBSON (Author, The Rule of Benedict): He comes out on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, and everybody's thinking - with a different reaction, on the left with fear and on the right with jubilation - that he will be the Panzer Pope.

HAGERTY: But Benedict has surprised everyone. He did not excommunicate a rash of liberals as some conservatives wanted, and he pleased them by reviving the Latin mass. Liberals are happy that, instead of stern lectures, he issued encouraging writings on hope and love. Gibson says Benedict shifted instantly from the stereotypical bad cop to the good cop — the man who presents Catholicism as an appealing alternative.

Mr. GIBSON: He wants to draw people to the faith rather than telling them what's wrong with them and what's wrong with the world. On the other hand, he has not abandoned that great concern for relativism.

HAGERTY: Relativism is the popular notion that there is no absolute truth, but only a range of religious or moral options. Benedict sees fighting relativism as the major battle of the day. It was on his mind when he spoke to the cardinals the day before he was elected pontiff.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)

HAGERTY: A dictatorship of relativism is taking shape, he said, which does not acknowledge anything as definitive and which leaves only one's own ego and its whims as the ultimate measure.

Unlike John Paul II — who thought he could engage and transform the modern world — Benedict is more pessimistic, says Paul Griffiths, a Catholic theology professor at Duke Divinity School. He sees the church as embattled, surrounded by a hostile secular world. Griffiths says Ratzinger gave a clue to his papacy when he took the name of Benedict, after the saint who preserved the faith in the Dark Ages.

Professor PAUL GRIFFITHS (Catholic theology, Duke Divinity School): Benedict was the man who founded monasteries that preserved the culture of the ancient world through a period of darkness and difficulty after the fall of Rome and so on. And I think that's symbolically present in our current pope's mind.

HAGERTY: Griffiths says the 80-year-old Benedict knows he needs to move quickly on his priorities: a purer Catholic Church, religious freedom and human rights. And while Benedict's theology is virtually the same as his predecessor's, he lacks John Paul's media savvy. Benedict's blunt, professorial style has run him into trouble, says Griffiths, as in 2006, when the pope gave a lecture in Regensburg, Germany, and quoted a Byzantine emperor.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)

HAGERTY: Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, the pontiff quoted, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

Professor Griffiths: He will give a long nuanced lecture about this or that, not realizing that three sentences will be extracted from it and will be taken to symbolize a whole attitude or program towards Islam in that case. John Paul would have thought about that.

HAGERTY: Many Muslims were outraged. Later, Benedict's spokesman said the pope did not agree with the tone of the Byzantine emperor's comments, but he did not disavow the message — that faith untempered by reason is dangerous.

Benedict also sees danger in unorthodox Catholic theology. Several theologians have been investigated or disciplined for such views as advocating liberation theology or the ordination of women.

Professor LUKE TIMOTHY JOHNSON (Catholic theology, Emory University): It's a soft intimidation.

HAGERTY: Luke Timothy Johnson is a Catholic Theologian at Emory University in Atlanta.

Professor JOHNSON: And I think, unfortunately, this has led to what I've called the big chill, which is to create an atmosphere in which bishops, priests, theologians are rather more frightened than they should be.

HAGERTY: Johnson is not afraid to speak, since he has tenure at a Protestant institution. But he's felt the pressure to conform. Three times recently, Johnson was invited to lecture at Catholic events, then disinvited when the organizers learned of his liberal views.

That means the pope is doing his job, says George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who's also written a biography of Benedict.

Mr. GEORGE WEIGEL (Author of biography of Pope Benedict XVI): What he is responsible for doing is reminding the whole church what the boundaries are within which authentically Catholic theological inquiry and debate takes place.

HAGERTY; Weigel adds that the pope is the custodian of 2,000 years of tradition and he will not simply shift policy as a political leader might.

Ms. CAPERS: Thank you. We'll put it in. They'll call your name. There's desserts and drink over there.

HAGERTY: Back at Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian, parishioner Alice White says she's relieved to see the kind of order that Benedict is advocating.

Ms. ALICE WHITE (Parishioner, Holy Comforter): People are killing people over tennis shoes. It doesn't' make sense anymore to me. We need to get back to do unto others as we want them to do unto us. So I think that's one of the things that I believe that he's going to bring to us.

HAGERTY: It's the kind of traditional faith that she finds in an anthem she'll practice with her choir later that day.

Ms. WHITE: (Singing) When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died.

HAGERTY: The hymn is venerable and orthodox, much like the pope who is about to visit her city.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Benedict XVI will become the third Roman Catholic Pope to visit the U.S. You can see past popes on their travels around the globe in a narrated slideshow at npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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