WASHINGTON — The most jarring word that Pope Benedict XVI is using during his visit to the United States is countercultural.The American sense of that term is shaped by the 1960s: free love, drugs, hippies, rock music and rebellion. Needless to say, that’s not what Benedict is preaching.

The word is the key to understanding how Benedict’s message runs crosswise to conventional liberalism and conservatism. Benedict came to the United States as a quiet but forceful critic of “an increasingly secular and materialistic culture,” as he put it during Thursday’s Mass. Almost any American who paid attention to his sermon had to be uncomfortable because all of us are shaped by the very forces he was criticizing.

Benedict directly challenged an assumption so many Americans make about religion: that it is a matter of private devotion with few public implications.

Not true, said the pope. “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted,” he told the country’s Catholic bishops Wednesday. “Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”

That is a demanding and unsettling standard for the right and the left alike. Benedict asked a pointed question: “Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?”

This is the thinking of a communitarian counseling against radical individualism. “In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy,” he said, “it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them. … We were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love — for God and for our neighbor.” It is this attitude that Benedict described as “countercultural.”

There will be much pious talk among Catholics (I speak from the inside) about how marvelous Benedict’s words were, how warm and gentle he proved to be. Parodies that paint him as a heartless enforcer are, of course, false. He seemed determined to confess the church’s great sin in the sexual abuse scandal, and he asked again and again for forgiveness. He took the extra step Thursday of meeting with a group of victims of abuse. It was a good and necessary act of penance.

Yet there is a radicalism underlying Benedict’s view (he spoke Thursday of “a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society”) rooted in a rather different spirit from the one animating the church at the time of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

John saw it as imperative for the church to discern “the signs of the times” and was critical of excessive gloom about modernity. “Distrustful souls,” John wrote in 1961, “see only darkness burdening the face of the earth.”

Benedict is certainly not without hope. Indeed, his November encyclical on hope — to which he has made frequent references this week — is a moving and intellectually powerful argument on behalf of an often forgotten virtue. Yet Benedict is more inclined than John was to see the church as beleaguered. He is less eager to seek “the signs of the times” than to worry about Christians who “are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age,” as he put it this week.

For this reason, I suspect that American Catholics of all political hues will find themselves struggling with his message. For myself, I admire Benedict’s distinctly Catholic critique of radical individualism in both the moral and economic spheres, and his insistence that the Christian message cannot be divorced from the social and political realm.

Yet I do not see the “spirit of this age” as being quite so threatening to faith or human flourishing as Benedict seems to think. As the pope has acknowledged in the past, Catholicism has been enriched by its encounter with enlightenment thought. The church should not now close itself off to what our age has to teach about the equality of men and women or the virtues of more democratic structures in its internal life.

Perhaps it is the task of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to bring discomfort to a people so thoroughly shaped by modernity, as we Americans are. If so, Benedict is succeeding.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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