- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI yesterday urged President Bush to do more to protect Christians from violence in Iraq and to promote humane solutions to the problem of illegal immigration and then chided America’s Catholic bishops for their bad handling of the sexual abuse crisis.

He also was sharply critical of American culture, saying its strongly individualist streak tempts Catholics “to pick and choose” among church teachings. Although at the White House, Benedict praised U.S. political arrangements in separating church and state without driving religion from society, as he says has happened in Europe, he last night warned the church’s U.S. leaders that the American way has its own downside.

The private midday meeting in the Oval Office between the pontiff and the president also involved discussions of the Israel-Palestinian peace process at length, but little else was made public about the meeting.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said that the two men discussed the Iraq war, but that the conversation was mostly about protecting Christians from violence. The White House said the topic of the Iraq war was raised by Mr. Bush, not the pope.

Benedict has been critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but Mrs. Perino said she was “reluctant to get any more detail … because [the two leaders] had an understanding that it would be private.”

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On immigration, a joint statement released after the meeting spoke of the need for a “coordinated” policy that results in “humane treatment” of immigrants and considers “the well-being of their families.”

Before their meeting, Mr. Bush and first lady Laura Bush received the pope on the White House South Lawn for a ceremony in front of an estimated crowd of 13,500, nearly twice the 7,000 that gathered here one year ago for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain.

The throngs at the White House, and along the two motorcade routes traveled by the pope in his famous Mercedes popemobile, deluged the religious leader with praise and adulation, shouting well wishes for his 81st birthday and breaking into a spontaneous rendition on the South Lawn of “Happy Birthday.”

The formal welcoming ceremonies also included a 21-gun salute, a singing of “The Lord’s Prayer” by soprano Kathleen Battle, and a performance by a Colonial-era drum and fife unit. Other U.S. dignitaries present included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the latter being the highest-ranking Catholic in U.S. elective office.

Benedict took pains to show his gratitude for the outpouring of affection, rising several times to stand — smiling — and wave with both arms.

Benedict was blunt last night in his speech to 350 U.S. bishops and cardinals at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast, admonishing them to show more spiritual and moral leadership, including cleaning up the sex-abuse crisis and providing “a clear and united witness” on legislative issues.

Filled with declarative statements such as “It falls to you” and “It is your task,” his hourlong speech in the Basilica’s crypt chapel touched on enormous challenges that his bishops face in pastoring the nation’s 67 million Catholics, including the priest sex scandals.

“It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of its use, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with love and concern to those so seriously wronged,” he said.

Describing the crisis as “sometimes very badly handled,” the pope left out any mention of homosexuality or homosexual clergy. The statistics released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops indicate that 81 percent of all sex crimes committed by priests were against young or teenage males.

He also noted that any action taken by bishops on behalf of the victims would come in context of a sexually perverse society full of “degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today.”

He asked: “What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through the media widely available today?”

Benedict steered clear of American politics, although he referred to “much current and proposed legislation that gives cause for concern from the point of view of morality.” The Catholic community, he added, “under your guidance, needs to offer a clear and united witness on such matters.”

According to a Vatican spokesman, the pope joined Mr. and Mrs. Bush in a prayer in the White House on one of those matters.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi said that “there was a brief prayer for the family” after the two men’s private talks in the Oval Office. Both Mr. Bush, an evangelical Methodist, and the pope have said that the traditional family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman, is under attack.

At the White House gathering, Mr. Bush welcomed the German-born pope to “a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square” and said Americans’ “hearts are open to your message of hope.”

The president also adopted the pope’s use of the term “dictatorship of relativism” in denouncing “a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong.”

Benedict’s address was more expansive, touching on the role of faith and morality in America’s founding, and then moving on to the need for preserving freedom by cultivating “virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate.”

“Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility,” the pope said in English.

He also warned that “a democracy without values can lose its very soul.” Leaders are needed, Benedict said, who are “guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions.”

It was a theme that he picked up on at the Basilica last night, telling the U.S. bishops that “it is not enough to count on this traditional religiosity and go about business as usual, even as its foundations are being slowly undermined.”

The “American brand of secularism,” he warned, “can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator.”

In that speech, he also reminded bishops to better oversee their clergy, “especially in those cases where tension has arisen between priests and their bishops in the wake of the crisis” and suggested that the roots of tensions between bishops and priests lies with the bishops themselves.

“If you yourselves live in a manner closely configured to Christ,” he said, “you will inspire your brother priests to rededicate themselves to the service of their flocks with Christ-like generosity. Indeed a clearer focus upon the imitation of Christ … is what is needed in order for us to move forward.”

Before speaking to the bishops, Benedict slowly processed through the central nave of the shrine above the crypt, which was filled with 600 employees from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He paused to pray at the Chapel of Our Lady of Altotting, the patroness of Bavaria, the German province in which the pope was born. The chapel was dedicated April 16, 2005, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 78th birthday. Three days later, he was elected pope.

“This pope has made it very clear how painful the sex abuse crisis was,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was among the listeners as his wife, Calista, was a soprano in a choir that performed a vespers service for the bishops. “The church has faced a very painful challenge.”

In a departure from the norm, Benedict allowed bishops to ask him questions — college-professor-style — about the lack of candidates for the priesthood, secularism in public life and the “quiet attrition” of many Catholics from the church. A recent Pew Forum poll found that one-third of all baptized Catholics leave the church by the time they are adults.

“Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our churches?” he asked. “Has our preaching lost its salt? Might it be that many people have forgotten, or never really learned, how to pray in and with the church?”

He also referred to “an alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States with an increase in cohabitation.”

He mused, “To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond or even a purely informal and open-ended arrangement to live with another person.”

The festivities continued last night with a formal East Room dinner held in the pope’s honor, featuring the Bavarian-inspired cuisine of his homeland. The pope, however, did not attend the event, citing scheduling conflicts including the evening meeting with U.S. bishops.

Today, Benedict will hold a public Mass at the new Washington Nationals’ baseball stadium. After three days in Washington, the pope is scheduled tomorrow to visit New York City, where he will tour the World Trade Center site and meet with religious leaders throughout the weekend.

The statement released by the White House said the pope and president “devoted considerable time” to discussing the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and also touched on aid relief efforts in Africa.

Mrs. Perino said she did not know whether a line in the statement was meant by the Vatican to implicitly target the treatment of detainees by the U.S. military and intelligence officials.

The statement described “the need to confront terrorism with appropriate means that respect the human person and his or her rights.”

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