This Pope Defies Labels

No modern papal tour would be complete without services for throngs of the faithful gathered in sports stadiums.

Scoreboard operators don't have much to do during these rites, especially in comparison with big games. They handle a few public announcements or display words for hymns, but that's about it. This is a shame, since many who flock to hear the pope desperately want someone to keep score. As usual, experts searched for signs of a political game plan during John Paul II's recent U.S. visit.

After all, this is an ultraconservative pope. Perhaps his strong words on abortion, euthanasia, sexuality and family values were new clues that he wanted Catholic leaders here to cut decades of ties to the Democrats.

But John Paul also praised America's ethnic diversity and pleaded for renewed efforts to help the poor, care for the sick and welcome immigrants. Could these be words of warning to Republicans, or even the Christian Coalition, amid debates on welfare and tougher laws at U.S. borders?

Alas, scoreboards in New Jersey's Giants Stadium and Baltimore's Orioles Park offered no statistics about political sacks or strike outs, touchdowns or home runs. By the time he returned to Rome, most commentators were stating the obvious: this pope continues to insist that a spectrum of issues are intertwined -- from conception to natural death and just about everything in between. If this makes many on both sides of America's political aisle uncomfortable, then so be it.

The pope's Giants Stadium sermon included all of these themes, woven together into one garment. Many quoted his words about the Statue of Liberty, but this sound bite needed context.

The United States is a land of great privilege, yet shadowed by poverty and suffering, said the pope. Clearly, tension exists between a radical emphasis on "individual responsibility" and America's yearning for a "community-based society with a great openness and sensitivity" to neighbors.

"Quite close to the shores of New Jersey there rises a universally-known landmark ... which tells us something important about the kind of nation America has aspired to be," said John Paul, near the end of his sermon. "It is the Statue of Liberty, Statue of Liberty with its celebrated poem: `Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. ... Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.'

"Is present-day America becoming less sensitive, less caring towards the poor, the weak, the stranger, the needy? It must not! ... If America were to turn in on itself, would this not be the beginning of the end of what constitutes the very essence of the American experience?"

U.S. history is marked by struggles to overcome "prejudices which excluded certain categories of people from a full share in the country's life," he noted. First came strife between religious groups and efforts to defeat intolerance. Then American clashed over slavery and, generations later, over racial discrimination.

In other sermons -- especially in New York City's Central Park -- John Paul included a litany of other social issues, from the needs of the homeless to those suffering from AIDS, from workers facing changing economic times to battered women. He praised the United Nations and urged America not to slide into a proud isolationism. This inspired one New York Times feature on the theme, "Why John Paul Sounds Like an Old-Style Liberal."

But the fight to defend the defenseless isn't over, said John Paul. America now excludes one class from legal protection and new threats are emerging. He offered tough words for any politico: It's impossible to protect life while kneeling at bottom line.

"When the unborn child -- the stranger in the womb -- is declared to be beyond the protection of society ... a moral blight is brought upon society," he insisted. "I am also thinking of threats to the elderly, the severely handicapped and all those who do not seem to have any social usefulness. When innocent human beings are declared inconvenient or burdensome ... grievous damage is done to the moral foundations of the democratic society."