As Pope John Paul II starts his 10-day visit to the United States and Canada today, he will be surrounded by an American people who are strongly divided over social issues but narrowing their religious differences. This seems to be the consensus of church people and others - both Roman Catholic and not - interviewed about the possible impact of the Pontiff's visit. His trip starts in Miami, proceeds along the Sunbelt to California, and ends with a visit with Indians and Eskimos in Canada's Northwest Territories on Sept. 20.
Protestant theologian Martin Marty says a big change among American Catholics occurred largely as a result of the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965.
``Catholicism is now in the main line,'' says Professor Marty. ``Take a look at the American [Catholic] church. It exists in the midst of religious freedom - freedom of choice.
``People pick and choose on issues like birth control and abortion. They won't come [be won over] by whip cracking,'' the theologian adds. ``We're a pluralistic society. And he [the Pope] can only make it by persuasion - not coercion.''
Marty and others expect John Paul to use his visit here to try to forge new understanding between Catholics and non-Catholics.
Both Catholic and non-Catholic women plan to demonstrate their opposition to the Vatican's stands on a range of social issues - such as abortion, birth control, surrogacy and alternative birth means, and the role of women in the church.
But the Pope is not likely to engage in open confrontation with these groups.
And although several Protestant fundamentalist groups are boycotting or ignoring the visit, most are putting out the welcome mat.