Pope Benedict XVI is an odd man for our season. We hardly live in a religious age, or even in a time of minimal regard for concerns of the soul. But when the pope visits the United States this week, he will be a welcome visitor for more than hundreds of thousands of Catholics who live here. The devout will want to hear him say mass at the new baseball stadium, and the Protestants, Jews and those of no faith will be more than merely curious. Pope Benedict is a tough icon for a soft age, unapologetic for defending the ancient code of morality, virtue and rectitude by which everyone can measure himself or herself.
Religious faith has become a subject for fun and derision, and books promoting atheism as some sort of pseudo-faith are bestsellers. But large majorities of Americans say they believe in God, and the three remaining presidential candidates are open about their Christian beliefs. The Seven Deadly Sins -- pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust -- are first transgressions against Catholic dogma, but continue to resonate with skeptics as well. The sins are far more powerful as the diagnosis of wayward human behavior than a sinner saying "my genes, the environment or my toilet training made me do it."
Many of us poke fun at belief in Satan, but even such a sinning poet as Baudelaire observed wryly, "The Devil's cleverest wile is to convince us that he does not exist." Anticipating the pope's visit, The Washington Post, which famously mocked faith as something only for the poorly educated and "easy to command," recently mocked politics, Washington's only reason for being, as the devil's work. (I think they were joking.) "It's harder and harder trying to do the Lord's work in the city of Satan," John McCain told a small audience in Atlanta at the headquarters of Chick-fil-A, a fast-food restaurant chain whose founder is a devout Baptist. (I think he was joking, too.) The capital's Mayflower Hotel, where Eliot Spitzer is said to have rendezvoused with an expensive call girl, has joined the Watergate on the tourists' tour of famous sites of sinning.
Passages in John Milton's epic "Paradise Lost," which tell how Satan leads the fallen angels in a debate over how to avenge their expulsion from heaven, read like the transcript of a meeting in Washington to discuss options in the war against the Islamist legion in the Middle East. In Milton's poem, the fallen angel Moloch calls for "open war." Belial prescribes wishful thinking, passive capitulation -- doing nothing: "Our Supreme Foe in time may much remit His anger." Mammon expresses the isolationist position, wanting to dig for gold and other treasures to make a heaven of hell. Satan speaks of colonizing Earth.