When Pope John Paul II visits the United States later this month, he will encounter a Catholic church that traditionalists say has become too Protestant. In nine U.S. cities, John Paul will see a brand of Catholicism that is comfortable with dissent; less reliant on church hierarchies for guidance; increasingly rooted in Scripture and personal spirituality; and open to far-reaching lay leadership roles.

In New Orleans, the Pope will speak to black Catholics, whose styles of worship, preaching, and evangelism have borrowed heavily from the Protestant tradition. In San Francisco, he will meet with 3,000 lay church members who have reached levels of responsibility in ministry, liturgy, and church governance rarely seen in the Pope’s native Europe or even in the United States just a decade ago.

According to church observers, these features of American Catholicism—including a preference for open debate and broad participation—owe partly to the influence of the American political experience and its emphasis on democratic processes. In addition, some say the U.S. Catholic church’s growing sense of itself as one Christian denomination, rather than a separate religion, has contributed to similarities with other faiths.

Religious Heartland

John Paul’s first U.S. visit in 1979 brought him to the prestigious Catholic archdioceses in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, where he drew huge crowds for outdoor masses. This time, according to planners, the Pope wants to see America’s religious heartland.

As a result, John Paul will see American Protestantism up close. The second day of his tour will take him to Columbia, South Carolina, where Baptists and Methodists predominate, and Catholics constitute a tiny ...

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