Benedictions: The Pope in America

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) Most Americans hold a favorable opinion of Pope Benedict XVI, but the vast majority confess they don’t know much about the pontiff, according to a new poll.
Just weeks before Benedict’s first trip to the U.S. as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, 58 percent of Americans say they have a favorable or “very favorable” opinion of him.
But when asked how much they know about the 80-year-old German, 52 percent said “not very much,” and nearly 30 percent said “nothing at all.”
Benedict and Americans will have a chance to get to know one another better April 15-20, when the pope celebrates Masses, greets interfaith leaders, and visits heads of state in New York and Washington, D.C.
Forty-two percent of Americans said they’d like to attend one of Benedict’s public appearances, according to the survey, which was conducted by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion and financed by the Knights of Columbus. Sixty-six percent of Catholics said the same.
More than 70 percent of Americans look forward to hearing Benedict talk about spiritual matters such as God’s presence in daily life, spiritual fulfillment and how to positively affect the world.
The survey polled 1,015 adults 18 years of age or older, 613 of whom were Catholic. The margin of error for all Americans is plus or minus 3 percent; for the Catholic sample alone it is plus or minus 4 percent.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

Asked about her church’s ban on artificial birth control, Emily Kunkel inhales deeply and pauses.
“It’s hard because the church has had this stance for so many years, there’s so much tradition behind it,” she says. “But I think in certain circumstances condoms should be used.”
Kunkel, a 20-year-old sophomore at Ohio State University, is a cradle Roman Catholic and a graduate of church schools. She regularly attends Mass on campus and in general agrees with her church on birth control — it shouldn’t be widely practiced, she says. But some dilemmas, such as the spread of AIDS in Africa, call for a more “situational” approach, she says.
“It’s not really helping the whole AIDS epidemic if condoms aren’t used,” Kunkel says.
When Pope Benedict XVI touches down in the United States, he’ll see a church in which Kunkel’s ambivalence toward Catholic sexual ethics is widely shared, particularly among the youth.
Sixty-one percent of Catholics insist that individuals should have the final say on contraception; 75 percent say it’s possible to be a good Catholic while disobeying church teachings on the matter, according to recent surveys.
Forty years after Pope Paul VI issued “Humanae Vitae” and upheld the ban on artificial birth control, the encyclical continues to be a flashpoint in the church. Nearly all Catholics agree that Humanae Vitae’s effects are pervasive and enduring.
From there, opinions diverge.
Did Paul VI accurately predict the dangers of separating procreation and sex? Or did he crack open a culture of dissent that has since seeped into every corner of Catholic life?
“The document was exceedingly important in the development of American Catholicism,” said R. Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame. “It was the first time in the history of the modern church that a papal teaching had been openly defied in such a widespread fashion.”
At a recent conference marking Humanae Vitae’s 40th anniversary in Skokie, Ill., Cardinal Francis George of Chicago candidly addressed the encyclical’s tangled legacy.
“It was the occasion for a direct conflict between many people’s experience as they expressed it and the authority of the church,” said George,president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We have then the beginning of the dissolution of the teaching authority of the church, with consequences we still live with.”
Among Humanae Vitae’s consequences, depending on whom you ask, are dwindling Mass attendance, a callousness toward sin, and polarized pews full of “liberals” and “conservatives.”
Others, meanwhile, say Humanae Vitae — or reaction to it — is partly responsible for the dearth of young men entering the priesthood, weakened bishops and the clergy sex abuse scandal.
In July of 1968, expectations ran high for Paul VI to at least partially lift the ban on artificial contraception. The Second Vatican Council had just called for lay Catholics to play a larger role in the church. The now widely available birth-control pill offered a discreet means to avoid pregnancy. A leaked press report hinted that a Vatican committee studying the ban favored ending it.
Instead, Paul VI dug in. He defended tradition and encouraged Catholics to savor “the sweetness of the yoke.” Sex exists for the connected purposes of unifying married couples and creating new life, Paul reasoned. Contraceptives break that connection and frustrate God’s designs, he said. Abstinence during a woman’s fertile days to avoid pregnancy — known as “the calendar method” — is acceptable. But other forms of birth control are “repugnant” and wrong in all circumstances, Paul said.
The uproar was immediate. In the U.S., 600 Catholic scholars issued a statement insisting that families, not the church, should be the final arbiter on contraception. Nineteen priests in Washington publicly defied their archbishop and criticized Humanae Vitae.
Dissent spread well beyond scholars and clergy. In fact, historians say Humanae Vitae sparked the most widespread public opposition to a papal teaching in centuries.
“American Catholics decided in their own consciences that the use of birth control was not sinful,” said the Rev. Jim Martin, an author and associate editor at America, a Jesuit weekly. The laity began to pick and choose which teachings to follow, leading to the rise of so-called “cafeteria Catholics,” he said.
“This is when the door to the cafeteria opened.”
Young Catholics in professor Lisa Cahill’s ethics classes at Boston College don’t understand why the church allows married couples to avoid pregnancy through the calendar method but not by other means, she said.
“The arguments don’t really fit together coherently,” she said. “As soon as you concede that it is moral to have sex while trying not to procreate, why does everything rest on the natural structure of the act?”
George Weigel, a noted Catholic scholar, said the clergy sex abuse crisis that erupted in 2002 was, in part, fostered by a culture of dissent born with Humanae Vitae.
“Did the notion that what the church believes is settled teaching can be disregarded help break down clerical discipline? Yes. Did the idea that bishops cannot address that breakdown forcefully wreak havoc on the church? Yes. Those two ideas were manifestly part of the crisis,”
he said.
But Weigel cautioned that bad behavior by clergy and misgovernance by bishops are more to blame for the scandal.
Marissa Valeri, 30, an advocate with Washington, D.C.-based Catholics for Choice, said that “whatever sliver of high ground (the church hierarchy) had on sexual matters was lost when the sex abuse crisis came to light.”
The young Catholics Valeri meets around the country don’t look to the bishops for advice on sex, she said.
“I know a lot of Catholics that are right there with them on immigration and the death penalty but on contraception, they’re just not.”
The late Pope John Paul II reinforced the ban on artificial birth control and said the matter was not up for debate. For him and Benedict, adherence to Humanae Vitae has served as a litmus test for would-be bishops, according to Catholic scholars.
U.S. bishops published a pamphlet in 2006 that encouraged young Catholic families to forgo contraception. As Paul VI predicted, the bishops said, use of birth control has led to a “pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases,” adultery, divorce and government population control programs.
Chicago’s Cardinal George said “Humanae Vitae is an illustration that even under great societal pressures and hardships, the church will stand for moral truth in her teachings and remain strong regardless of the consequences.”
Kunkel, the Ohio State sophomore, said she’s glad her church takes a moral stand and sticks with it. College students are bombarded with pressures and competing messages, she said, and it’s comforting to hear one clear, unchanging call.
Still, Kunkel said good Catholics can disagree with the church about contraception.
“For me, having that belief inside of you, that you know God is there and you’re supposed to help people when you can, that’s being a good Catholic.”
(Celeste Kennel-Shank contributed reporting for this story from Skokie, Ill.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

By Brittani Hamm
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — With only two months to design and construct the altar that will be used for the giant outdoor papal Mass next month, two first-year grad students at Catholic University have relied on state-of-the-art machinery to get the job done.
It’s the type of artistic technology that would have made Michelangelo and Bernini jealous.
“We don’t have much time to build all these things, so the more control and expedience we have, the better,” said Ryan Mullen, whose home church in Manchester, N.H., inspired part of the design. “With (this technology), it’s done. You know it works. It’s guaranteed.”
Mullen and his partner, John-Paul Mikolajczyk, of Staten Island, N.Y., knew the project would have been impossible to complete in such a short time without the help of modern technology. Computerized machines allow pieces to be contracted out, and the precision relieves some of the pressure by virtually guaranteeing the pieces will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s actually being constructed and fabricated in the most modern of technologically advanced ways, and only modern approaches to materials would allow the design to be what it is,” said Randall Ott, dean of Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning. “This is probably the first papal altar on earth done with laser cutting and computer routing technology.”
As a member of the committee planning the Mass, Ott helped organize a contest at Catholic University to design the altar pieces used by Pope Benedict XVI at a stadium Mass on April 17.
Mikolajczyk, 23 and outgoing, and Mullen, 24 and more reserved, may seem like an unlikely pair, but the former roommates paired up because Mikolajczyk understood the symbolism and Mullen knew the technical.
“Part of the intent of the design, at least as the students described it,was this idea of a very solid upper slab hovering, almost like a quality of aspiration or hope, above this very metal light tracery,” Ott said.
Although details of the altar’s design have been adapted, the basic form of their winning submission remains essentially the same: a solid top and an open bottom.
“The design was a fascinating mix of the hyper-modernistic and the traditional,” said Ott. “At first glance, it seems like a very traditional, iconic altar. Then you realize that the whole base of it is this incredibly light lacework.”
The designers added some iconographic elements in order to keep with tradition, but students knew the tiny details would not be visible from a distance. So their design aimed to be simple, yet dignified, Mikolajczyk said.
“It needed to be not just good, but worthy,” he said.
The pope’s chair will have a double back, so the tassels from the pope’s miter and his flowing vestments can be draped behind the first chair back. The pope’s coat of arms will be carved into the tall chair back made of solid white maple, and five crosses will be carved into the top of the altar, symbolizing the five wounds of Christ.
The wooden top of the altar will be built to allow the panels to shrink and expand. The filigree underneath will be crafted from one-inch thick sheets of aluminum that will create a spider web of metal around the bottom of the altar and pulpit, and be incorporated into the high back of the chair.
“I would love to have a piece of it here at Catholic U,” Ott said.
“That’s yet to be determined, I think, but I’m sure it will be used somewhere. It’s going to be a gorgeous piece.”
Copyright 2008
Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

By Tom Feeney
Religion News Service

This the official schedule for Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Washington and New York April 15-20:
Arrival at Andrews Air Force Base. Greeting by President Bush and Mrs. Bush. Also present will be local dignitaries of the church and the apostolic nuncio, the pope’s ambassador to the U.S.
President Bush and the first lady meet Benedict on the south lawn of the White House. This is only the second time in history that a pontiff has visited the White House. At the end of the welcoming ceremony, a private meeting is scheduled between the pope and the president.
Private prayer service and meeting with the 350 bishops of the United States at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Before the prayer service, there will be outdoor photo opportunities of the public welcoming the pope to this national church.
THURSDAY, APRIL 17, 10:00 A.M.
The pope will celebrate Mass at the new Nationals Park in Washington. This will be the first non-baseball event in the park.
The heads of the more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. and superintendents from the 195 Catholic dioceses have been invited to an address by Benedict on the importance of Catholic education. The address will be on the campus of The Catholic University of America, the only college in the U.S. operated by the bishops.
Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and representatives of other religions will meet the pope at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, next door to Catholic University.
FRIDAY, APRIL 18, 10:45 A.M.
The pope will address the United Nations after an early morning flight to New York.
Prayer service with leaders from other Christian denominations at St. Joseph’s Church, founded by German Catholics, in Manhattan.
Mass for priests, deacons and members of religious orders at St.
Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
The pope will meet with young Catholics, including 50 youngsters with a range of disabilities, at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. Thousands of young people, including hundreds of seminarians, are expected to participate in a rally/prayer service and to hear the pope speak.
SUNDAY, APRIL 20, 9:30 A.M.
The pope will visit Ground Zero, the site of the disaster at the World Trade Center.
SUNDAY, APRIL 20, 2:30 P.M.
Mass at Yankee Stadium will bring this historic visit to a close.
The 200th anniversary of the Baltimore Archdiocese’s designation as an archdiocese, as well as the birth of four dioceses — Boston; New York; Louisville, Ky.; and Philadelphia — will be highlighted during the Mass.
The pope leaves JFK International Airport for Rome.
(Tom Feeney writes for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.