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American Catholics Recall Special Bond with Pope


American Catholics are expressing their admiration for the late Pope John Paul II, even as they recall some of the differences they had with the pontiff over issues within the church and social policy.

Pope John Paul made five trips to the United States during his papacy, each one drawing huge crowds.

In remarks following the pope's death, President Bush recalled the pontiff's special connection with the United States.

"In his visits to our country, the pope spoke of our providential Constitution, the self-evident truths about human dignity in our Declaration [of Independence] and the blessings of liberty that follow from them," he said. "It is these truths, he said, that have led people all over the world to look to America with hope and respect."

The pope was widely admired by Roman Catholics in the United States, especially the personal warmth and grace he demonstrated in greeting the faithful on his U.S. trips.

"In a certain sense, he was American. He enjoyed people. He had a great sense of humor. He was humble. All the things that America likes in their leaders and I think we saw that in him," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is the Archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Recent public-opinion polls found that large majorities of U.S. Catholics believe John Paul will rate as one of history's greatest popes.

But the surveys also found that many American Catholics disagreed with the pope on his opposition to birth control, allowing priests to marry and permitting women to become priests.

Georgetown University Theology Professor Chester Gillis spoke on NBC's Meet the Press program. He says young Catholics in particular found areas of disagreement with Pope John Paul.

"They respect the pope and they admire him in many ways. But they simply disagree because the culture in which they are embedded is accepting different principles from the pope's principles and they have chosen their cultural principles over the pope's principles," he explained.

Smaller groups of American Catholics took issue with the pope's stand against abortion and homosexual marriage. But the pope's strong stand for social justice and against the death penalty also endeared him to more liberal American Catholics.

"It is not a liberal versus conservative dichotomy here and that the pope comes down on the conservative side," said Jesuit Priest David Hollenbach, who is a professor of Catholic Theology at Boston College in Massachusetts. "That is certainly not the case, I think. His position on our responsibility toward the poor in the developing world. His opposition to the war in Iraq, the pope condemned both the Gulf War 10 years ago and the war in Iraq numerous times. So I think one has to be careful about putting him in the conservative box. It is more complicated than that."

A new poll in the wake of the pope's death finds that a majority of Americans and Catholics want the church to do more to combat sexual abuse by priests, a scandal that erupted in the Boston area in 2002.

"Perhaps some of the negative, very tragic effects of this sex abuse scandal could, in the end, lead toward a greater degree of lay [non-clergy] participation and therefore, this very, very dark cloud might have some positive effects in the long run," added Professor David Hollenbach of Boston College. "I certainly hope so. But the scandal surely has harmed the teaching voice and the authority of the church leadership, including the pope and including the bishops and including clergy."

The new public surveys also indicate that many Americans favor allowing priests to marry and women joining the priesthood.

Professor Hollenbach notes that Pope John Paul opposed those changes and that caused strains within the U.S. Catholic Church.

He says many American Catholics will have those issues in mind as the church prepares to select a new pope.

"This is where I think most Americans would be looking for a person who adopts a posture of not only teaching but listening," continued Professor Hollenbach. "It is not easy to be a Christian in the midst of American culture today and I think many American Catholics would like the next pope to recognize that this is not an easy task and that he would be supportive and encouraging in that regard and not simply negative and judgmental about it."

The next pope will also face a major challenge in re-engaging American Catholics in the church in the wake of the sex abuse scandal. A recent survey found that only about one-third of U.S. Catholics attend mass in any given week.

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