Popes get conflicting advice on what to say to Americans and don’t always say what they really think

Taking example from John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI will not scold Americans during his first pontifical visit to the United States. Just like John Paul II, he is also concerned about his public image. Vatican diplomats have admitted as much in their pre-trip media interviews when they suggested that the pope will try to present a moderate tone during his American visit. More likely than not, however, what Americans will hear from Benedict XVI and what he really thinks about the American society and liberal American Catholics, are two different things.


When doing research for my book on the role of women in Karol Wojtyła’s life, I came across convincing evidence that prior to his historic first visit to the United States in 1979, John Paul actually wanted to be very honest and blunt in telling Americans what he really thought about their liberal views on such issues as abortion, contraception, and feminism.


Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish-American professor of philosophy who had been Wojtyła’s close friend and translated into English his book The Acting Person, shared with me her unique insights about the preparations for his 1979 visit. This philosopher-phenomenologist told me that at the outset of his papacy, John Paul II’s conservative Polish friends fed him a lot of misinformation about America. She claimed, however, that she had been able to get him to modify some of his views.


Indeed, some of John Paul II’s first papal speeches did include positive comments about the American society, but in later years I saw a marked decline in the warmth of the pope’s messages to Americans. More and more they began to reflect his exasperation with America, its liberal values and its growing influence around the world.


American women in particular, including Catholic nuns, publicly challenged many of John Paul II’s assumptions and expectations. While they were not able to change his views to any significant degree, their challenge prompted him to pay more attention to women’s issues and to develop the theology behind new Catholic feminism.


Before John Paul’s first papal trip to the United States in 1979, Dr. Tymieniecka visited him at Castel Gandolfo and discussed with him his proposed speeches. Some of the speeches may have been drafted in part by Dr. Wanda Półtawska, a Polish psychiatrist and a victim of Nazi medical experiments. She had been Wojtyła’s scientific advisor on birth control and had helped him convince Pope Paul VI to issue his 1968 anti-contraception encyclical Humanae vitae. The encyclical, for which Cardinal Wojtyła and Dr. Półtawska provided Pope Paul VI with supportive research, drove millions of women and men away from the church.


Dr. Tymieniecka told me in 2007 that she did not review the texts of papal speeches prior to his 1979 visit but held discussions with John Paul II about what kind of messages might resonate well with Americans. She confirmed that his initial ideas, which his conservative Polish friends had suggested, were way off the mark as far as the realities of life in the United States were concerned. But she said that she had managed to talk him into making drastic changes in his speeches to Americans and was gratified to hear that he had taken her advice.


Dr. Tymieniecka takes partial credit for some of John Paul II’s first words on the American soil after his arrival in Boston on October 1, 1979. He said that he came “with sentiments of friendship, reverence and esteem” and “as one who already knows you and loves you.” According to her, these words had set the tone for his first apostolic visit to the United States. But the visit could have been much different if he had accepted the advice of his conservative Polish friends.


Dr. Tymieniecka told me that while John Paul II’s initial views about America may have been uninformed, she said that this was quite normal at that time for any person living in communist Poland. She also told me that she not only had persuaded him to adopt a more moderate tone in speaking to Americans during his first visit but that in subsequent years his opinions of Americans, American society and the American Catholic Church became drastically more positive.


Wojtyla's Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church by Ted LipienHowever, my own analysis of John Paul II’s later speeches to Americans shows a definite trend toward a much more critical attitude. He told American bishops in 1999 that that America was “a continent marked by competition and aggressiveness, unbridled consumerism and corruption,” and he saw Americans as being deeply unhappy despite their material wealth, an observation for which there is little support.


Although he will try to hide it, Benedict XVI also does not have a very high opinion of the American society and the liberal wing of the American Catholic Church. In a 1984 interview, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) suggested that being rich is a measure of one’s worth in North America and “the values and style of life proposed by [American] Catholics appear more than ever as a scandal.”


Father Charles E. Curran, who was accused of being too liberal and was fired from his teaching position as a Catholic theologian by the Catholic University of America on orders from John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, believes the previous pope took “several major strides backward” on issues of human sexuality and the rights of women.


But determined to continue the conservative line established by his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI believes that giving in to the demands of liberal Catholics on such issues as abortion, contraception, women-priests and gay marriages would ultimately destroy the Catholic Church and fatally undermine the respect for life and basic morality. Benedict XVI prefers the Church to become smaller and more conservative rather than allow liberal American and West European Catholics impose their liberal values on the rest of the world. During his visit to the U.S., however, he is not likely to make any strong critical comments about American liberalism.


Ted Lipien is the author of Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church.


Ted Lipien ’s email address is: mail@tedlipien.com. For radio, TV, Internet and print media interviews with the author, please call: 415-793-1642. For more information about Ted Lipien and his book on Pope John Paul II, please visit: www.TedLipien.com


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