Arun Pereira: The Relevance of the New Papacy

Arun Pereira, in the Toronto Star (4-21-05):

[Arun Pereira is an associate professor at Saint Louis University. His book Papal Reich, an historical novel about the papacy, is set in a world where religions are displacing nations as the global powers.]

In an age of globalization, people's identities and loyalties are increasingly tied to the one constant in their lives: Religion. Can the new Pope make a difference in their lives, asks A time of expanding global trade, new technologies disseminating information in unprecedented ways, and religious fanaticism forcing people to take up arms. Yes, the 16th century was a momentous period that saw a surge in globalization, the invention of the printing press, and wars driven by religious fanatics.

It also saw the unravelling of a unique alliance between the popes and the emperors of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, after eight centuries of mutually beneficial - and sometimes, uneasy - collaboration. That alliance and its unravelling may have important implications for the present times, particularly as the world prepares for a change in the papacy.

Beginning with Charlemagne in 800 AD, the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire used religion - through the papacy - to wield power over subjects spread over various principalities and fiefdoms in western and central Europe.

Charlemagne and his successors were officially "crowned" by the popes at the Vatican, thereby bestowing a spiritual legitimacy to their reign. In return, the pope received security and protection.

The emperors recognized the power of religion to unify diverse subjects - people of various ethnicities, and social classes, speaking languages that varied from German and its dialects to the Slavic languages.

This strategy worked because Europe was going through a tumultuous period, characterized by changing emperors and kings, shifting boundaries among fiefdoms, and people on the move; under these ever-changing conditions, individual identity was shaped by the one constant in people's lives: Religion.

Allegiance to religion bested all other loyalties, such as allegiance to emperors, barons, and even ethnicity, language, and social class.

The emperors successfully invoked religion (through the pope) and garnered power and loyalty. Historians agree that without religion, the Holy Roman Empire would not have sustained its thousand-year term.

On the other hand, historians disagree on the true role of the Church in the empire. Was the Church the spiritual arm of the empire or was the empire the temporal arm of the Church?

That debate highlights the curious juxtaposition of religion, politics, power and individual identity during those times and offers valuable insights for the present - insights that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Catholic Church's newly crowned Pope will need as he guides his flock.

Today, in most parts of the world, people are undergoing unparalleled change, driven by the effects of globalization.

We are witnessing the greatest migration of peoples across the globe, nation-states giving way to giant trade blocs and national borders being redefined or erased.

All these factors fundamentally undermine patriotism and national identity.

Under these conditions - just like during the Holy Roman Empire - people's identities and loyalties are increasingly tied to the one constant in their lives: religion, be it one of the traditional, established faiths or otherwise. So much so, they are more likely to put their lives on the line for religion more readily than for any other cause - even killing their own countrymen for it....

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