In his five pastoral visits to the United States, Pope John Paul II was always welcomed by his American flock like some sort of religious rock star, with passionate cheers of "John Paul II, We Love You!" But when it came to his steely pronouncements on morality, sexual ethics or blunt criticisms of the excesses of American capitalism, the reception was decidedly more frosty. In his 26 years as pope, John Paul was loved and admired, respected and adored, but often ignored by many U.S. Catholics. Church-watchers say the tendency to love-but-not-listen was one of the defining characteristics of John Paul's sometimes turbulent relationship with the U.S. church. "It was a great frustration for John Paul that he was beloved but not always listened to," said David Gibson, a former religion reporter and author of "The Coming Catholic Church." Gibson, who also worked as a newscaster for Vatican Radio, said the disconnect flowed both ways -- between Americans who frown on Vatican interference and a Roman curia that is suspicious of American culture and, by extension, the American church. "American Catholics are not as rebellious as many in the Vatican think they are," Gibson said. "The problem is a dialogue of the deaf between these two cultures -- the New World American culture and the Old World Roman culture." Americans routinely rated John Paul near the top of their lists of most-admired men, and regularly gave him job approval ratings well above 80 percent. Other polls, however, bore out the other side of the story: -- A 2001 survey by LeMoyne College and Zogby International, for example, found that only 36 percent of Catholics agree with church teaching against birth control and only 44 percent agree with a celibate male priesthood. John Paul insisted neither was up for discussion. -- A 2002 Gallup poll showed that 67 percent of Catholics think the church's teaching on sexuality is "outdated." -- In 2004, a Gallup poll found that 83 percent of American Catholics would follow their own conscience on "difficult moral questions," while only 14 percent said they would follow the pope's teachings. The arms-length approach colored John Paul's relationship with both the left and the right. Liberals resisted him on sexuality and women's issues, while many conservatives declined the pope's pronouncements on the death penalty, war and peace, or economic policies. It was not, however, solely an American phenomenon, said the Rev. Tom Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "People who claim Americans invented cafeteria Catholicism don't have an adequate sense of history or what's going on in Italy or even Poland," Reese said, noting abysmally low church attendance and rising secularism in the pope's back yard and homeland. The pope certainly left his imprint on the U.S. church, or at least its leaders. Matthew Bunson, editor of the Catholic Almanac, estimates that "well over 90 percent" of American bishops have been positioned by John Paul, including the seven cardinals who lead major archdioceses. Much like the College of Cardinals -- where all but three of the princes of the church were named by John Paul and will elect his successor -- the American bishops will perpetuate the pope's ideals long after he is gone.
"Many of the younger bishops very much reflect his own spiritual and intellectual vision for the church, certainly in areas of theology and pastoral care," Bunson said. The pope's picks, however, came with some grumbling. Some critics say John Paul has appointed only conservative administrative types who share the Vatican's desire for in-step orthodoxy and centralized decision-making. The clergy sex abuse scandal that erupted in 2002 -- and the failure to respond quicker to the problem -- exposed their faults, argued Stephen Pope, a professor of theology at Boston College. "He's appointed people who have proven their unswerving loyalty to him, but who have not proven to be particularly open or creative or humble or compassionate," Pope said. "Those are traits we have to have in a bishop. I don't mean liberal or conservative, I mean pastoral." American reformers say the pope squelched any move toward change, perhaps an outgrowth from his native underground Polish church where allegiance and fidelity were key to survival under communism. Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun who defied a Vatican order not to attend a 2001 conference on women's ordination, said John Paul clashed with Americans' embrace of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that empowered the laity. "If he could see the church itself as a body to be constantly transformed, constantly converting, the same way he sees society, he'd be the most astounding pope in all of church history," Chittister said. "This pope who believes so strongly in transformation is shaping a church that isn't permitted to transform."
Nonetheless, the pope remained immensely popular in the United States and maintained a certain affection for the American church. "He's like a parent who loves his child but wants the child to be better," Reese said.