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Teaching the pope

Pope Benedict XVI will be preaching on his visit to Washington and New York next April, his first trip to the United States as pope. That’s part of a pope’s job description. But many American Catholics hope that the papal visit will double as what politicians in this country call a “listening tour.” They know that, erudite as this former theology professor may be, he still might be able to learn something from their experience in a pluralistic country where the Catholic faith has flourished despite -- or because of -- the separation of church and state.

Benedict’s visit, announced this week, will coincide with a presidential campaign. During the 2004 campaign, America’s Catholic hierarchy was divided on whether pro-choice Catholic politicians -- including Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry -- should be denied Holy Communion. Some bishops, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, believed that pro-choice politicians should search their conscience before deciding whether to approach the Communion rail. Others took a more confrontational line, warning that they would deny the sacrament to pro-choice politicians.

Earlier this year, Benedict seemed to endorse the hard-line view, answering “yes” when asked if he agreed with the idea that Mexican legislators who voted to legalize abortion should be excommunicated. But a spokesman later issued a clarification that, while reasserting church teaching against abortion, left unclear whether the pope would deny Communion to pro-choice politicians.

When Benedict comes to the United States, he is likely to be importuned by conservative Catholics to side with the hard-liners. He would be wiser to listen to other Catholics, laypeople as well as clergy, who know what mischief would be caused by a decree that would seem to force some Catholic officials to choose between their responsibility to their constituents or the Constitution and their standing in the church. These American Catholics believe, as President Kennedy said in 1960, in “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”

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The pope’s visit could be educational on another front as well: Christian-Islamic relations. Even before his much-criticized remarks about Islam at a conference in Germany, Benedict had seemed to side with those who believe that Europe is a Christian civilization that can’t assimilate a significant Muslim presence. On his home continent, it was common until recently for Christianity of one form or another to be the established religion. In the United States, which never has had a national church, Protestants, Catholics, Jews and now Muslims vigorously practice their faith. Perhaps more important, research indicates that Muslims in America are more assimilated and less alienated than their fellow believers in Europe. The pope should hear their voices too.


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