Exactly two days before the Pope died, I was in Florida. I was following the saga of Terri Schiavo, the 41-year-old woman whose feeding tube was removed because she had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. The ugliness of the rhetoric had to be seen, as well as heard, to be believed: every day, the "right-to-life" advocates came out with increasingly wild claims about poor Mrs Schiavo, not only insisting that she was "responding" but even that she was "lucid".
We were told how the Christian right - I hate that expression, mainly because I see it as a contradiction in terms - had hijacked the issue because it was politically so potent. I was therefore particularly fascinated by the spectacle of one clergyman, Father Frank Pavone, fulminating outside the hospice shortly after Mrs Schiavo had died. He ranted to anybody who would listen that Michael Schiavo, the man who had fought to have his wife's life support taken away, was guilty of "heartless cruelty" - and that her death was "a killing . . . an atrocity . . . murder".
Just another hate-filled preacher, typical of the rabidly right-wing Bible thumpers of the South? That was what I thought, until I took a closer look at Pavone's clerical collar, and realised that he was actually a Catholic priest: one who, I later discovered, was from New York. And the three men constantly surrounding Terri Schiavo's parents - her family had tried to keep the feeding tube inserted - were Franciscan monks who had jetted in from St Paul, Minnesota.
I had always accepted the truism that Catholics in America are left of centre: statistics certainly show that they were solid Democratic voters for much of the past century. Their support proved decisive in electing the first Catholic president, John F Kennedy, in 1960. But in the past three decades - the period that largely encompassed Pope John Paul II's reign at the Vatican - significant sections of the country's 64 million Catholics have shifted to the right, both politically and culturally.
They have been adopting many of the right's favourite causes, too. I had thought it was just a coincidence that so many of my Catholic friends in Washington seem to want (for example) to reintroduce school uniforms, level Iraq with carpet bombs and shoot Kofi Annan, but now I see that they actually embody a national trend. It is simplistic to say that they have been taking their lead from a reactionary pope: John Paul may have delighted US sensibilities by opposing the Soviet bloc, but he also took strong exception to all-American habits such as invading Iraq and executing people.
In many ways, in fact, American Catholics have been diverging from the Vatican in recent years. Nearly two-thirds of those polled say they want more lay people involved in the Church - a view diametrically opposed to that of Rome. Sixty per cent are in favour of allowing the clergy to marry, and the ordination of women. No fewer than 82 per cent believe it is imperative that the Church do more to halt the sexual abuse of children.
Politically, the data supports my thesis too. In 1996, Bill Clinton won 60 per cent of the Catholic vote in the presidential election. Four years later, Al Gore got 50 per cent, against George Bush's 47 per cent. Last November, a majority of Catholic voters - 52 per cent - helped put a right-wing Republican back into the White House. Bush courted their vote by visiting the pontiff three times, and he is the first American president in history to attend the funeral of a pope.
Perhaps partly as a result, a visible strain of right-wing Catholic activism is beginning to permeate American society in a way never seen before. If you are a young woman who wants to fill a prescription for the morning-after pill at the Osco drugstore at State and Adams Streets in Chicago, for example, you will probably be turned away by a female pharmacist. She will not fill out prescriptions for routine birth-control pills, either.
This same phenomenon has also been growing in Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina and California: pharmacists in these states have not only refused to fill out prescriptions for birth-control medicine, but have sometimes confiscated prescriptions so that others cannot, either
(a serious problem with the morning-after pill, which, if it is to work, must be taken within hours of sex).
All this has become so serious in Illinois that the former boxer who is now Democratic governor there, 48-year-old Rod Blagojevich, introduced an emergency law a few days ago. In force for 150 days, it makes it illegal for pharmacists to turn away any woman with a birth-control prescription. In so doing, Blagojevich also noted that some pharmacists have started loudly to assail and rebuke women who turn up with prescriptions for the Pill. Now, he says, there will be "no delays, no hassles, no lectures". The ineffably sad Schiavo controversy became bogged down in protracted legal wrangling, and now the issue of whether pharmacists should be allowed to take direct action in this way is also heading for the courts. The department of financial and professional regulation in Illinois says it is planning legal action against the Osco chain for "failure to provide appropriate pharmaceutical care to a patient". Bigger fish are also involved in this activist movement: Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, now refuses to stock the morning-after pill in its 3,750 megastores throughout the country.
In the days that followed the pope's death, however, the media concentrated on what they tended to see as the decline of Catholicism in America. The number of nuns in the US had dropped by 48 per cent since 1975, we were solemnly told, and that of monks by 37 per cent; the number of parishes without a priest rose by an astonishing 350 per cent in the same period, and soon a quarter of Catholic priests will be aged over 75.
All this is true, but it merely reflects the seismic trends that I see affecting Catholicism and Catholics in the US. They have become a potent political force in their own right. There are many more Catholics, for one thing: in the same period for which all these woeful statistics were trotted out, the number of people who describe themselves as Catholic rose by 32 per cent. Just under a quarter of the US population consists of Catholics.
Even many of the 35 million Latinos in the US tend to see themselves not so much as struggling immigrants who gravitate to the left, but as assimilated US citizens who identify more readily with their Americanism than with their Catholicism. Hence the widespread divergence from the more hierarchical, theologically traditionalist teachings of John Paul II - and Catholics' increasing embrace of American politics, ideas and values.
I suspect that this is the reason why we saw such rampant activism in the Schiavo case in Florida. And I confidently predict that we have not heard the last of the new breed of militant refuseniks who are flexing their muscles at the nation's pharmacies. RIP, John Paul.