Economist Editorial: The First Pope in 500 Years to Change World History

Roundup: Talking About History

Editorial in the Economist (4-2-05):

WHATEVER future generations may say about Pope John Paul II, who died on Saturday April 2nd, aged 84, they will look back with amazement on the moment when, for the first time in 500 years, a Christian bishop was in the vanguard of world history. That was in June 1979, barely nine months after the Polish prelate's surprise call to the Vatican, following the untimely death of Pope John Paul I. On a return visit to his homeland, the new pope was bathed in an outpouring of popular devotion that amazed almost everybody, from Warsaw's dissidents to an appalled Soviet Politburo. Millions of Poles turned out to sing, weep and pray with the man they knew as Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of the university town of Krakow. From then on, the Soviet communists began losing their grip on their East European vassals, and the end of the Iron Curtain was in sight. Stalin's mocking question—“How many [military] divisions has the pope?”—had received its answer.

What John Paul managed then was to neutralise, at a stroke, the tyrant's most important weapon, fear. For the remaining quarter-century of his papacy, he reaffirmed his message: “Be not afraid”. But by the end of his reign, the world had in many ways become an even more terrifying place, and fewer people thought the Catholic church had all the answers. Frightening as the cold war was, the next pope may be required to wrestle with an even larger and more intractable army of demons: mass terrorism, the risk of a “civilisational” conflict between Islam and the West, and the wars and disease that have already ravaged Africa.

John Paul's successor should, in theory, have the advantage of taking over a relatively coherent and unitary organisation, after a quarter-century in which Vatican authority over the world's 400,000 or so Catholic priests, and their combined flock of about one billion people, has steadily been reasserted. The senior ranks of the Vatican bureaucracy include a broader range of nationalities than ever but on John Paul II's watch there was little tolerance of dissent from his conservative views.

This reaffirmation of Roman power has come at a cost. It has not solved, and may well have exacerbated, the problem posed by the utter diversity of church life at the grass-roots, from wealthy Boston suburbs to African war zones. A papacy which began by invoking “people power” against tyranny often seemed to be imposing, from a great height, a rigid set of principles on believers whose everyday experience it barely understood. Partly for that reason, the moral influence of the Catholic church slumped in some of its old strongholds, from Malta to Poland.

In the slums of the developing world, from Mexico City to Lagos, the number of Catholics continues, at least on paper, to grow. But in Latin America, especially, the Roman church has been losing out to Protestant evangelicals in recruiting the truly faithful—those who worship regularly and contribute to the church coffers. Though the Brazilian Catholic church still asserts its mission to tend to the poor, it is fast-growing evangelical groups like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God that have been the bravest in dodging the drug gangs' bullets and spreading the Word to the wretched inhabitants of the lawless favelas....

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