I expect Pope Benedict’s speeches to the United Nations, on Friday, and at Ground Zero, on Sunday, will be more newsworthy than his polite, pleased-to-be-here address at the White House this morning.

In the meantime, it is quite strange watching the networks scrambling around for something to say. We can look forward to hearing plenty more about birthday cakes, disgruntled sex-abuse victims, and the “spiritual closeness” of President Bush to the Holy Father.

One gets a better impression of what’s really on Pope Benedict’s mind from the full transcript–shockingly under-reported–of his discussion with journalists on the flight from Rome to Maryland. Here’s an intriguing bit,

Journalist: Holy Father, in receiving the new ambassador of the United States of America, you cast in a positive light the public value of religion in the United States. I’d like to ask if you consider this a possible model also for secularized Europe? Also, is there also a risk that religion and the name of God can be abused for supporting a certain political stance, including war?

Benedict XVI: Certainly we can’t simply copy the United States. We have our own history, and we must learn from each other. What I find fascinating about the United States is that they began with a positive concept of secularism. This new people was composed of communities and people who had separated from state churches, and they wanted to have a secular state which would open possibilities for all the confessions and all the forms of religious expression. It was an expressly secular state, and it was directly opposed to a state-church. It was secular precisely out of love of religion, for the authenticity of religion, which could be lived only in freedom. Thus we find a state that’s expressly secular, but favorable to religion in order to give it authenticity.

We know that the public institutions in America, albeit secular, draw on a de facto moral consensus that exists among the citizens. This seems to me fundamental and positive to consider, also in Europe. But in the meantime, more than 200 years of history have passed with so many developments. Also in the United States, they’ve had a new form of secularization, a new secularism, which is entirely different. They also have new problems, such as immigration, the “Wasp” ideology, and all these problems. The situation has become complicated and differentiated in the course of history, but the fundamental idea seems to me even today worthy of being observed.