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Presidential race will be a subtext of pope’s U.S. visit

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Times Staff Writer

When Pope Benedict XVI visits the United States next week, he will find a nation consumed by a heated presidential election campaign. Will his presence have an influence?

Although he will meet with President Bush at the White House during his East Coast swing, Benedict is not expected to overtly speak of the campaign or U.S. politics. But his positions on burning social issues facing Americans are well-known, and political parties courting Roman Catholic votes may seek to take advantage of the publicity surrounding his words and actions.

The pope, as the ultimate arbiter of Catholic teaching, adamantly opposes abortion as well as stem cell research, same-sex marriage and any policy that in the church’s view undermines the traditional family. These are positions that find most resonance in the Republican Party.

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However, the pope also has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, a country he said last year was being “torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees.” He has voiced support for immigrants and denounced “inhumane” capitalism that hurts the poor and weak. Democrats might find something to cleave to in these views.

Benedict’s trip to the U.S., his first as pontiff, normally would have been scheduled for the fall, when the United Nations General Assembly opens. The U.N. extended the initial invitation to the Vatican. But the visit was moved to April to avoid running up against the November elections, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Tuesday.

In a videotaped statement released Tuesday, Benedict said his trip would offer a “fraternal gesture” to Catholics and a sign of friendship for other faiths and “all men and women of goodwill.” Emphasizing the importance of religion in American society, the pope, speaking in English with a passage or two in Spanish, said he hoped to convey a “message of Christian hope” when he addressed the U.N. and American audiences.

“The world has greater need of hope than ever: hope for peace, for justice and for freedom,” he said. “But this hope can never be fulfilled without obedience to the law of God, which Christ brought to fulfillment in the commandment to love one another.”

The pope admires in American society the tendency to incorporate religion in public life. To what extent the 11 speeches he makes during his six-day U.S. stay will have political content, or content that can be interpreted as political, remains to be seen.

Catholics, who make up about a quarter of American adults, are not a monolithic group politically. Historically they have tended to side with the Democratic Party because of social justice issues and support for labor unions. In the last few decades, many Catholics for whom “family and life” issues were paramount shifted to the Republican Party.

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A core Catholic teaching is to put the tenets of the faith into everyday personal and public life. For many, that means their faith governs how they vote.

“The pope will tell Americans to recapture their own best values” involving life, family and peace, said Msgr. Francis Kelly, a senior official with the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

“People will hear those messages and then look at the candidates,” he said in his office at the 16th century Casa Santa Maria, a onetime convent that houses priests studying for doctorates. “For the church, it’s a matter of putting out the principles. People need to hear, reflect and make their own judgments with regard to policies and legislation.”

Any influence on how people vote, Kelly said, will be indirect and nuanced.

Benedict and other Vatican conservatives have made it clear that Catholic politicians are bound by their faith to legislate against abortion, same-sex unions and other activities abhorrent to the church. In an apostolic exhortation released in February 2007, the pope called these issues “not negotiable.”

“Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others. It demands a public witness to our faith,” he said. “Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce and support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature.”

Last May, when the pope traveled to Latin America, he said during a news conference aboard the papal aircraft that Mexican politicians who had just liberalized abortion laws in Mexico City had, in effect, excommunicated themselves.

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Benedict is to arrive in Washington on Tuesday and also visit New York. He will pray at ground zero, preside over Masses at the Nationals Park and Yankee baseball stadiums, and meet with American bishops and with Catholic educators. He will visit a Manhattan synagogue to deliver a Passover greeting. While in the U.S., he will mark his 81st birthday and the third anniversary of his pontificate.

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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