Pope Seeks to Bolster America's Catholics Pope Benedict is visiting the United States for the first time as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. R. Scott Appleby, a professor of religious history at the University of Notre Dame, says the pope's message to America's "Cafeteria Catholics" will likely be a positive one, rather than focusing on differences with the Vatican.
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Professor R. Scott Appleby: 'Cafeteria Catholics'

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Pope Seeks to Bolster America's Catholics

Professor R. Scott Appleby: 'Cafeteria Catholics'

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Back now to the pope's visit. Benedict XVI's first visit to the U.S. since he was elected pope nearly three years ago.

We wanted to find out more about what American Catholics think of Pope Benedict and how he views them. So we called R. Scott Appleby, who's been keeping track of what American Catholics are thinking. He's a professor of religious history at the University of Notre Dame, and he joined us from there.

Good morning.

Professor R. SCOTT APPLEBY (Religious history, University of Notre Dame): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, there's a perception out there that many American Catholics are what are called sometimes Cafeteria Catholics. That is more moderate. They pick and choose among Catholic doctrine and more lax in their observance of the religion. Is that a fair perception?

Professor APPLEBY: Many Catholics are Cafeteria Catholics, that is, they pick and choose, and they create, in a way, their own religious profile. The church wants Catholics to resist that tendency, which is widespread in American culture, because we're a culture of choice, we are independent, individualistic, and there are many sources of so-called wisdom in the culture.

But the church says, Look, we have a coherent truth, we have a way of life, and in fact a lens through which to view all these choices, and that needs to be instilled and held tight by Catholics. So there's a tension in the relationship between Catholics in American culture and the freedoms of that culture.

MONTAGNE: You know, back when Pope Benedict was elected pope, he was considered quite strict. I'm wondering if he has turned out to be as strict as both the left and the right thought he might be.

Professor APPLEBY: He's been a surprise. And for most people across a spectrum a very pleasant surprise.

Certainly he's strict in terms of demanding adherence to Catholic teaching. That's not going to waver. But his approach to pastoral questions - Well, here are the teachings of the church. How do we apply them? How do we understand them? It's very striking that his first two encyclical letters were about love and hope. He's learned a great deal in the course of his brief pontificate. And his message has been, in a sense, more constructive and positive and life-giving, in a way, than one might have expected given his old job.

MONTAGNE: While he is here in America, Pope Benedict will find himself closer to issues that have put a wedge between American Catholics and the Vatican, such as birth control and women as priests. Do you expect him to address those?

Professor APPLEBY: I don't think those will be the themes. What the church in the United States needs more than anything is encouragement, gratitude, uplift. The church has come through this terrible sexual abuse scandal and crisis. It was already struggling with a shortage of women religious priests and sisters and with the challenge of retaining the loyalty of younger Catholics, which is a challenge, again, across the board.

So, the pope is very shrewd. He understands what's going on and what the church needs. And I think it would be a mistake, and he won't make, to focus too much on differences.

There'll be some criticisms of U.S. policy, I think, and of certain tendencies in the culture. But I believe the message to Catholics will be positive.

MONTAGNE: Any chance that he will touch on the very unpleasant issue that has been so much in the news here of child abuse amongst priests?

Professor APPLEBY: Yes. He will refer - it's been said, two or three times at least - to the sexual abuse crisis. One would've hoped he might have made a pilgrimage to Boston during this trip, but he's already got a pretty booked schedule.

In any event, there needs to be something said very strongly, again in a positive vein, but also apologizing, recognizing the suffering not only of the victims but also of the church more broadly. Catholics are dismayed and depressed by aspects of this scandal. So he will address it in no uncertain terms. How major an address it will be is still uncertain.

MONTAGNE: You just mentioned the relationship of the church to its young people - the future, obviously, of the church. Pope John Paul II famously had quite a special relationship with Catholic youth who would flock by the tens of thousands and more to his events. What about Pope Benedict? Has he managed to maintain that link?

Professor APPLEBY: Pope Benedict is not the kind of charismatic figure Pope John Paul II was. Not many people are. But keep in mind that as one young woman in Denver said when she was asked, well, why don't you obey the things the pope says. He talks about no sex out of marriage, no birth control, et cetera. And your generation does those things. And the young women responded, well, he has a right to his opinion.

She didn't quite get the connection that the pope's opinion is supposed to be binding on people.

MONTAGNE: Now, you're talking about Pope John Paul at the time?

Professor APPLEBY: Pope John Paul II. In other words, they loved him, and they did - many of them did emulate him, to be fair. But the church wants more than that kind of affinity and warmth. What Benedict brings is a very, very precise mind, a great intelligence, and an ability to perceive what's at the heart of the matter. And that may be a very useful compliment to the wonderful charisma and of course the intellectual acumen of John Paul II.

So they're complimentary figures. But you will not have Benedict XVI moving people profoundly by his personal charisma, rather by the quality of his ideas.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

Professor APPLEBY: Thank you.

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MONTAGNE: R. Scott Appleby is the director of the Crock Institute at the University of Notre Dame. Our coverage of the pope's visit continues at npr.org. There you can find advice on proper etiquette if you're around the pope. You'll find the answer, for instance, to that perennial question should I kiss the ring. Plus, there's a photo gallery tracing the history of the pope mobile.

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