The Pope Has Come, but Not Change

By Jorge Ramos
Dos Mundos
April 24, 2008

The only reason the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States attracted any attention is that it was his first as pope -- nothing more. There are no changes and no new debates to be engaged in. After all, Joseph Ratzinger is known for defending the Roman Catholic Church's most traditional values. He travels a lot, but he doesn't change.

"Remember, the Catholic Church is not in a continuous process of change," said Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney in a recent interview.

That's true.

And perhaps that might explain why so many Catholics in the United States are leaving the church. According to a Pew Research Center study on religion in America, three out of nine people raised as Catholics have deserted the Church. And where do they go? The majority leave for Christian congregations with more modern practices that allow pastors to marry, women to have greater access to the same positions as men, and human sexuality to be accepted with fewer restrictions.

The Catholic Church, for instance, continues to ban the use of condoms. They're not accepted as birth control methods even for married couples, nor even to avoid contracting AIDS. And Benedict XVI, who was the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and whose task was to set the moral tone for the Catholic Church worldwide -- will not be the pope who approves the use of prophylactics.


"The Pope has said many times that it is more important to change mentality and respect the dignity of each individual," Mahoney said, "especially with regard to women."

But it is difficult to get this message across in a country where young people start having sex at age 15 or 16.

Mahoney, who oversees America's largest diocese, knows that.

"It is very difficult to follow Jesus Christ; to follow his teachings. But everything is focused on respect for each person's dignity."

It's not surprising that Benedict XVI has decided to visit Washington and New York, but not Los Angeles. It was in the latter city where most of the sexual abuse cases against children and minors took place. The Los Angeles Archdiocese spent $660 million to settle 508 sexual abuse cases, facing near bankruptcy. Most of the incidents occurred during the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Popes do not grant interviews to the press. Nor do they equivocate. Or at least that is what the defenders of papal infallibility believe. But the reality is that it would have been extremely difficult for Benedict XVI to visit Los Angeles without being grilled by the press on this subject.

Ratzinger was one of the principal officials in the Catholic Church when it was the Vatican's policy to handle the sexual abuse complaints internally and in secret. Pedophile priests weren't reported to the police. Many cases ended tragically, and guilty priests remained unpunished with the church simply transferring them to a different parish.

"Why did the Catholic Church hide the criminals?" I asked Mahoney.

"There were a lot of problems in those three decades, and we do not know why," responed the spiritual leader of more than three million. Then, he added: "We have taken many steps to protect everyone in the Catholic Church."

Ratzinger does not enjoy high popularity in the United States. Only 52 out of 100 Americans have a favorable opinion of him, according to a poll taken last month by the Pew Research Center. On the other hand, 76 percent of Americans had positive views about John Paul II (in June, 1996).

Perhaps it's a matter of age. John Paul II was elected pope when he was 58 years old. Benedict XVI -- who was described by Mahoney as "very intelligent but always humble" -- began his papacy at 78. And save exceptional cases, men that age, whatever their religion, generally don't change the principles that have guided them throughout their lives.

That is why Benedict XVI will not be the pope of change. And, if his attire is any indication, it is more likely he will ratify the values of the past. The pope customarily wears capes that for decades have not been used even in the Vatican itself.

The pope's mission, Mahoney reminded me toward the end of our talk, is to take the Gospel not radical changes -- to today's world. Agreed. However, I am still perplexed by the traveler who arrives in a new country and expects everyone around him to change ... except himself.


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