The recent visit of Benedict XVI to the U.S. demonstrates once again the uncanny ability of the most influential popes to embody the prospects as well as highlight the contradictions of the Roman Catholic Church in the world. The Pope’s visit conversely afforded an opportunity for U.S. Catholics, other people of faith, and the media to project onto Benedict their hopes and fears regarding the Church’s global role as a moral leader in public life.

As with John XXIII and John Paul II before him, Pope Benedict XVI is pushing forward a strong agenda shaped by his personal convictions as well as his sense of the Church’s needs and goals. Like John Paul II, he has consistently spoken out against what he sees as the twin evils of (liberal) secularism and (postmodern) relativism, reversing experiments with indigenization and openings toward locally-oriented forms of worship initiated under the Second Vatican Council during the papacy of John XXIII. But Benedict’s pronouncements on these worldly dangers show they act in his theology as sometimes distinct but often overlapping concepts, containing inherent and ongoing tensions that continue to present difficulties for the Church in the world.

Under John Paul II, secularism and relativism more or less corresponded to geographic constructs. The dangers of secularism were most prevalent in advanced societies such as the United States and Western Europe, while relativisms in the form of localized cultural practices threatened the Church in Africa and Asia. In a sense, trends in Latin America fused both evils. The Liberation Theology born there encouraged and even proclaimed the necessity of re-interpreting the Gospel from “Third World Eyes,” while borrowing freely from structural Marxism to arrive at conceptualizations of collective and class-based evil. The resulting theology both embraced local communities’ interpretations of Gospel teachings and placed them within a framework seen as inspired by anti-religious social theory.

Perhaps this is why under Benedict the two concepts are often treated as symbiotic. The current Pope has warned against “creeping” or “aggressive secularism” as well as the “dictatorship of relativism.” The former concerns a materialism and an “excessive individualism” that threatens “to reduce faith to a strictly private matter.” The latter refers to an “eclectic” approach to religion that results in “letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching.'” They overlap in a dangerous “hedonism” that concedes too much to “modern social and political pressures,” and hence cannot emanate from deep and mature faith and revealed truth.

However constrained both John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s interpretation of both secularism(s) and relativism(s), the two Popes have succeeded in constructing a global Catholic vision that disciplines these sometimes overlapping tendencies. The 2000 Declaration “Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church,” consolidated and foreshadowed many of Benedict’s views on religious pluralism, insisting on the duty of Catholics to proclaim the unicity and “universal mission” of the Catholic Church. The document also strongly asserted a uniquely Catholic doctrine of salvation, stating that other faith traditions, while they may sometimes act as “preparation” for Christian salvation, cannot be seen as simply one way among many to God. Moreover, some religious rituals and practices, according to the declaration, may act as “obstacles” to true salvation in Christ. The upshot of this teaching has been to draw the global flock back into an inclusivist (in the sense of insisting on the superiority and truth of one’s own faith tradition), and even at times exclusivist, rendering of Catholic doctrine.

At the same time, however, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI often celebrate and appropriate certain characteristics of localized cultures that, in their view, complement and deepen the Church’s teachings. In “Ecclesia in Africa,” for example, John Paul II chose to expand on the positive and formative aspects of communally-based traditional African religions and cultures: “They can even be seen as a preparation for the Gospel, because they contain precious semina Verbi which can lead, as already happened in the past, a great number of people ‘to be open to the fullness of Revelation in Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel’.” Reminiscent of the arguments made by Bartolomé de Las Casas in his famous “In Defense of the Indians” 450 years before, which referred to indigenous Latin Americans as childlike and pure, John Paul II’s exhortations to respect “African” ways of life and systems of belief were taken by many to embody a genuinely pastoral paternalism rather than a neo-colonial one. Similarly, Benedict XVI received generally high marks for his recent visit to the U.S., in which he frequently praised the American secularist tradition as permitting the inclusion of faith and religion, unlike its European counterpart, even while he warned against the evils of secular excesses.

Nevertheless, many remain critical of both Popes’ insistence on reining in adherents to conform to Vatican strictures. Benedict, in his former role under John Paul II as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, created considerable distress in the North and South American as well as West European churches by silencing Latin American liberation theologians and others who strayed from his interpretation of orthodoxy. Other observers find that the Catholic Church has become unhelpfully restrictive on issues of religious pluralism. As Joan Chittister pointed out, many observers criticized Dominus Iesus for having “a pre-Second Vatican Council sound of clanging gates and rising drawbridges to it.” For Chittister herself, the document was especially troubling because it placed stringent limits on pluralist understandings. “It inserts a theological conversation-stopper into a world that has never needed interfaith dialogue more or wanted it more sincerely.”

Today the critics have not been entirely silenced, but many have been trimmed from the roles of Catholic adherents, while others have left voluntarily to join denominations that they believe better reflect their beliefs regarding the role of women, religious hierarchy, sexual and reproductive morality, and/or hybrid forms of religious spirituality.

Of course the Church has gained as well as lost adherents worldwide, and the “competition” from Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and in some places Islam would exist whether or not the Vatican permitted the trends it labels as secularist and relativist. But the problem for those who disagree with the post-Vatican II orthodoxy is that an increasing number now find themselves outside or on the margins of a more doctrinally coherent Church.

To be sure, both John Paul II and Benedict have continued to emphasize the long tradition of Catholic social teaching that prioritizes human dignity and the duty to redress the indignities of poverty on an individual as well as global scale. Benedict also repeatedly emphasized in the U.S. the duty to welcome immigrants and ensure that families are not separated, and at the UN (in a probable reference to Iraq), he advocated a return to a form of multilateralism that does not rely on the hegemony of the powerful. Benedict has shown his human side, and while different from that of John Paul II, he has gained respect among some former critics.

But John Paul II and Benedict’s apparent success in reining in the worldwide flock also belies the tensions inherent in the need to maneuver between and through their secularism/relativism constructs. Many who are most active in promoting social justice remain wary of the Vatican’s selectivity regarding which human rights it promotes. Catholics as well as non-Catholics question whether the Church’s legitimacy on issues of moral relativism has been diminished by its actions in the sexual abuse scandal. Perhaps most important, while the Church’s insistence on religious inclusivism provides a sense of security and certainty for many of the faithful (and mirrors similar tendencies in components of Evangelical Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam), Benedict continues to bump up awkwardly (in his interventions regarding Islam, Judaism, and other Christian denominations) against the tolerance among faiths often expected in a religiously pluralist world.

For now, Americans have recast their projections of Benedict and the Church in a more favorable light than before his visit. But the inherent difficulties involved in navigating a message of orthodoxy amidst the pluralist ethos and syncretist practices produced by trends in indigenization, migration, and globalization remain.