Pope emphasized the pastoral over the confrontational A hug from the Holy Father

August 16, 1993|By Peter Steinfels | Peter Steinfels,New York Times

DENVER -- It is the task of popes to talk about religion, and for that very reason their religious messages are often considered newsworthy only when they can be distilled into immediate, specific political or moral directives. That is all the more likely when the pope is known to be as politically minded as John Paul II.

Given that fact, as well as the code language of American politics, it might have been inevitable that the pope's speeches in Denver came across to many people as highly political and confrontational, a severe critique of the United States.

But given the well-documented independence of U.S. Catholic opinion on how moral issues like abortion should be handled politically, the likelihood of forging Catholics into a militant political bloc seems slight.

So in the end, many will leave Denver this week convinced that, for all the pope's verbal excursions into areas where politics and religion overlap, he saw his visit as primarily pastoral.

Those who stressed the pope's pastoral aims and actions on this trip did not deny that he wanted to rally opposition to abortion and, increasingly, to euthanasia as well.

But they asked why, if the pope wanted to make his meeting with President Clinton as confrontational as it was widely portrayed, did the word "abortion" not even appear in his remarks at the Denver airport?

Pope John Paul II, they pointed out, was quite capable of being brutally direct, of waving an accusatory finger in public, for example, at the Rev. Ernesto Cardenal, one of the priests who took posts in Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

In his 1979 visit to the United States, the pope had strong words in Philadelphia about priests' leaving the priesthood. In 1987, he admonished the U.S. bishops in Los Angeles about the impermissibility of dissent in the church.

There was nothing really comparable on this trip. Many of the pope's strongest statements were simply reiterations of things already said by him or his predecessors or even by the Second Vatican Council, which called abortion "an unspeakable crime," one of that Council's few condemnations.

Not only did the pope's speeches include passages at odds with the idea of a narrow political focus, they also included words easily obscured by the image of a man who is stern and unyielding.

Two interesting examples were mentioned here by those who felt that reporters were missing the pastoral side of the visit.

In the pope's most direct call to action on abortion, for example, made in his speech Saturday, he spoke not of laws but of "a massive effort to educate consciences."

He concluded the passage by counseling abortion opponents to "accompany their teaching about the value of every human life with concrete and effective acts of solidarity to people in difficult situations.

"Without charity the struggle to defend life would be lacking the essential ingredient of the Christian ethic."

In the same speech, the pope received a standing ovation when he mentioned the media as one of the causes of growing violence in modern cities. But rather than milk that line the way many politicians -- and many religious leaders, too -- might have done, the pope appeared eager to direct his audience away from easy exaggerations.

"You seem to be satisfied with the pope opposing American TV," he ad-libbed in his heavily accented English at the end of his address. "The pope has not spoken against American civilization, American society, American television," he said, using the third person. "He has spoken for an authentic promotion of what is civilization, what is culture -- for human dignity."

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