ROME -- When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States later this month, be skeptical of the media coverage. Some in the American press actually want to see a knock-down-drag-out war of political ideologies between the pope and president; I think they may end up deeply disappointed.
A recent op-ed piece by Michael Sean Winters, author of "Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats" (Perseus, 2008), served the unintentional purpose of warning American Catholics of this media bias. Winters wrote that the pope will "show how much his worldview differs from President Bush's when he denounces the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq before the U.N. General Assembly -- a denunciation that's expected to be especially harsh after the recent martyrdom of a Chaldean Catholic archbishop killed by insurgents in Mosul."
But all it takes is a modest knowledge of Benedict's three-year papacy to know that that's probably some wishful thinking on the part of liberal Americans.
In truth -- and Vatican officials, analysts and others here will tell you this -- Benedict is not going to America to make headlines. He is coming to the United States as the pope, shepherd to Catholics in America and head of the Vatican City State.
Anyone who was with me at the pope's mass on April 2 in celebration of the life of Pope John Paul II was reminded that Benedict is, in fact, a priest -- a man whose agenda is to remind people about the gospel and its message of salvation in Christ. He isn't just a politician.
Winters wrote: "It wasn't that long ago that the Vatican and the White House saw the world pretty similarly. Throughout the Cold War, both staunchly opposed Communism, laying the bedrock for U.S.-Vatican cooperation." He says those days are over, and that the United States and the Vatican are now at loggerheads.
But if you take a quick overview of recent papal activity, you get the clear indication that this pontiff knows all too clearly the world we live in, and the threat to freedom that the United States is confronting. In the much-debated address he gave at Regensburg University in Germany, he talked about faith and reason and Islam. He was criticized in the Muslim world, but because of his courage in tackling an explosive topic, he's managed to be a catalyst for talks about building a Catholic Church in Saudi Arabia.
This past Easter Sunday, Benedict baptized a now former Muslim-Italian newspaper editor, Magdi Allam. Allam says he tried to encourage Muslims to denounce radical Islam and rise up as moderates against murderous extremism. He got death threats for doing so. Now there is a price on his head.
Expect, in other words, for the pope to talk about religious freedom in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
That won't be all. Papal biographer George Weigel recently wrote, "The pope is coming to the U.N., not to give a pontifically guided tour of the world scene, praising this and lamenting that. In this 60th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he is far more likely to challenge the world body to take more seriously the moral truths that undergird the human dignity the U.N. was founded to defend -- moral truths that can be known by reason."
That's not the "Bush lied, people died" message some were praying for. Just as well. What the world needs now is not more Iraq finger-pointing, but a clear way forward. Benedict offers some of that: He issues a warning siren and challenges religious leaders to take a serious look at the big picture.
Weigel predicted to me about the upcoming trip: "The question is whether, and how, Islam can affect what Christian theology would call a 'development of doctrine' on issues like religious freedom and the separation of religious and political authority in a just state. A lot of 21st-century history is riding on the answer to that question."
If the pope can start with that issue, and share his vision of a world with political leadership embracing reason, he will be doing a great service in helping us win this war.