The most vivid impression most Americans have of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States is likely to be the attention he paid to the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the United States (and in other countries as well).
He brought it up unbidden at almost every stop along the way, from interviews on the plane from Rome to his final Mass at Yankee Stadium.
Perhaps his most important act, undertaken outside the view of pervasive television cameras, was his meeting with a group of victims of abuse, where presumably he was able to share his sincere shame at what had happened and his determination that the church would not be complicit in such outrages in the future.
This was undoubtedly an important pastoral function for America’s 65 million Roman Catholics, at a time when the church is suffering from a decline in attendance and a shortage of priests in an increasingly secular culture.
Whether it will or should satisfy victims of clergy abuse, who would like to see at least a few bishops disciplined — those who were passive or complicit, by transferring rather than disciplining priests accused of abuse — in some meaningful way, is yet to be determined.
Pope Benedict correctly declined to immerse himself in short-term politics during his visit to a country in the throes of one of the more highly contested elections in recent memory. As a religious and spiritual leader, he does well to take a longer view and to observe human activity from a higher plane.
Nonetheless, we were mildly disappointed that he did not speak out more forcefully about the war in Iraq, which the Vatican rightly condemned from the beginning. This pope took the name Benedict as a signal that he wanted his papacy to be a force for peace.
While avoiding rudeness to one’s hosts, it would not have been out of line to discuss the Iraq war more extensively and explicitly, if only to reduce the chances of such mistakes in the future.
All that said, this pope, contrary to the image some had of him on his election as an unyielding dogmatist, showed himself unfailingly kindly, with reservoirs of personal compassion and humility.
He showed an impressive understanding of the United States as a country founded in freedom, delicately balancing faith and reason.
We hope the country and he will be better for his visit.