WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pope Benedict tempered his praise for American religious tolerance on Wednesday with a warning that U.S. society can quietly undermine Catholicism by reducing all faiths to a lowest common denominator.
Addressing the nation's Catholic bishops, the German-born pope said the U.S. Church could not drop its guard against relativism just because faith plays a larger part in public life in the United States than it does in more secularized Europe.
A strong individualist streak in American culture leads some Catholics "to pick and choose," following Church doctrines they like and ignoring others, he said during a long speech on challenges facing Roman Catholicism in the United States.
"It is not enough to count on this traditional religiosity and go about business as usual, even as its foundations are being slowly undermined," he warned the bishops gathered at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
The "American brand of secularism," he said, "can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator."
Countering growing secularization in Europe has been a main theme of Benedict's papacy. His comments on the United States have mostly been positive remarks on how it has separated church and state without driving religion from the public sphere.
The speech to nine U.S. cardinals and 350 bishops, his main opportunity to speak to leaders of his Church in America, revealed a deeper level of concern Benedict has about a superficial religiosity sometimes called "civil religion."
"Faith becomes a passive acceptance that certain things 'out there' are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life," he said. "The result is a growing separation of faith from life, living 'as if God did not exist.'"
"We have seen this emerge in an acute way in the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion."
'PREACHING LOST ITS SALT?'
Another sign is the continued drift of Catholics away from the Church, he said. According to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 24 percent of Americans are Catholics but a further 10 percent are ex-Catholics.
"Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our churches?" Benedict asked. "Has our preaching lost its salt?"
The pope said part of the problem was that American Catholics had left the "ghetto" of Catholic culture that reinforced religious practice among the immigrant communities that long made up the bulk of the faithful.
Those communities have assimilated in recent decades into the pluralist mainstream of this mostly Protestant society, where other faiths and fads compete for people's attention.
"The Church in America," Benedict said, "is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it, in an engaging and imaginative way, to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfillment."
A study issued just before Benedict's visit showed many U.S. Catholics -- especially younger ones -- had only a shallow understanding of their faith.
While the Church teaches that the Eucharist is clearly the most important of its sacraments, only 25 percent of those polled thought so, according to the study by the Center for Applied Research into the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Some 39 percent chose baptism as the most important sacrament and 26 percent picked marriage.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)
(For more on religion, see the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld at blogs.reuters.com/faithworld)