Adoring US flock ready for the Pope - but not his views

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The Independent Online

New York

The Pope landed in New Jersey yesterday to begin a four-day visit to the United States, the country he likes to call "God's playground" but with which he has an increasingly complex and strained relationship.

On arrival, he proclaimed himself "a pilgrim of peace", reminding the crowd that his speech today to the United Nations, his first in 16 years, would come exactly 30 years after Pope Paul VI delivered the injunction: "No more war, war never again!"

Hundreds of thousands of the faithful will greet Pope John Paul at outdoor Masses in New Jersey, New York's Central Park and Baltimore. But behind the cheering and the moments of shared worship will be the background noise of deepening dissent among America's 56 million Catholics - if not with the leadership offered by the Pope himself, whom they adore, then with his strict positions on issues of reproduction, gender and sexuality.

The devotion among American Catholics for the pontiff seems virtually unaffected by the debate on his actual teachings. Whatever they think of the message, they apparently still favour the messenger. An opinion poll published yesterday by ABC TV and the Washington Post indicated an 82 per cent approval rating for the Pope and his stewardship of the Church.

But when it comes to particulars of the message, they flee him in droves. According to the same poll, 93 per cent of American Catholics believe practising birth control is acceptable, 85 per cent think divorced people can still be good Catholics and 69 per cent said women who have abortions could also be good Catholics. Other polls have shown majority support for women priests and a married priesthood.

Most sensitive among all these issues, because it crosses so completely into American political debate, is abortion. It was expected to be raised during a brief meeting yesterday between the Pope and President Bill Clinton, who greeted him at Newark International Airport. The President is in favour of free choice on abortion; the pontiff, by contrast, has urged a world- wide campaign by Catholics to oppose it.

In turn, the Pope is known to have mixed feelings about the US. "God's playground" it may be, and without question its Catholic Church, with its considerable wealth and huge following, is one of the most vibrant. But he also sees the US as a place in moral decay. In recent weeks he has warned of the new enemies of hedonism, greed and consumerism - phenomena not unknown in America. In a recent address, he noted that the "light of Christ" came from the East and that the "West has need of this light".

At the UN today, the Pope is expected to urge greater work on protecting human rights and ending strife in Bosnia and Africa. On his flight yesterday, he spoke of the need also to shore up the UN. "One speaks much about the crisis of the United Nations but even if it is in crisis it must be safeguarded, because it is worth having this ... family of nations."

The "pilgrim Pope", meanwhile, will spend his days in New York cocooned in unprecedented security. As far as possible, he will be transported by helicopter or in a "Popemobile" fitted with a double dome of bullet- proof glass. It will be much different from the last time he was in the Big Apple, in 1979, when he rode the streets in an open limousine.