Benedict Counters European Secularism on Czech Republic Trip: The Pope Returns to Familiar Theme: Urging the Church to Think of Itself as a 'Creative Minority'

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PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBUC . Given the logic that propelled Benedict XVI to the papacy four years ago, one could say that his Sept. 26-28 visit to the Czech Republic, the 13th foreign journey of his pontificate, was the trip that this pope was elected to make.

In the aftermath of the conclave of April 2005, cardinals said they had turned to Joseph Ratzinger at least in part because he seemed their best bet to tackle the crisis of faith in Europe. If grappling with secularism is the defining struggle of this papacy, in many ways the Czech Republic is its frofftline.

About half of the population in this central European nation of 10 million says it doesn't believe in God, and perhaps just 5 percent of serf-identified Catholics actually go to Mass. In the Prague archdiocese, more priests die each year than are ordained* Religious * sociologist Ted Turnau, who teaches at Prague's Charles University, quips that the Czech Republic may be the lone spot on earth where the phrase "Catholic atheist" isn't a misnomer.

Even the mayor of Prague, Pavel Bem, conceded in welcoming remarks to the pope that his country "has a reputation as a very atheistic nation." If the pope was going to make a stand against secularism, in other words, this was the place to do it.

Although it's tough to judge the fruits of a papal trip right after the fact, Benedict's strategy seemed clear:

* For the broader society, the pontiff served up a Bohemian version of his "affirmative orthodoxy," styling Europe's Christian heritage as the best guarantee of peace, tolerance, dialogue and freedom.

* For the local church, he urged Catholics to embrace life as a "creative minority," not pining away over declining numbers or the church's faded glory, but rather aiming at a passionate faith able to act as a leaven within secular culture.

The footprint of Benedict's affirnative orthodoxy was perhaps most evident in what he didn't say. He avoided all the common flash points of conflict with secular opinion, never mentioning, for example, hot-button moral issues such as abortion or gay marriage. (That's despite the fact that abortion is legal and widely available, a domestic partnership law for gay couples was adopted in 2006, and legalization of euthanasia is before parliament right now.) The pope's deputies also quietly let it be known that restitution of some $8 billion in church .property stolen under the communists and never returned, as well as the lack of a formal church/state agreement, is not an "urgent priority," even though local Catholic leaders have pressed the issue for much of the past decade.

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Instead, Benedict presented what might be styled a 21st-century form of "Christian humanism." He applauded the Velvet Revolution and similar movemerits across Eastern Europe that swept communists from power two decades ago, but argued that freedom by itself is just a means, not jan end. If freedom is to lead to a trnly humane society, the pope argued, it must be ordered to truth.

"Goodness," the pope said, "is freedom's protection." "The pursuit of truth makes consensus possible," Benedict said during a speech to politicians Saturday, Sept. 26. It "keeps public debate logical, honest and accountable, and ensures the unity that vague notions of integration simply cannot achieve. …