Just days ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Czech Republic, Vatican analyst John Allen is saying in an essay for the Prague Post that the papacy’s social and political influence is one of the most unique and far-reaching in the world today. From the fall of communism to Western-Muslim relations to the AIDS crisis, he says, the Pope is a key international player.
Describing the Catholic Church in “purely empirical, sociological terms,” Allen likens the Catholic Church to a “lone superpower” whose involvement is necessary to address almost any global crisis. The world’s approximately 1.2 billion Catholics are in every “nook and cranny” in the planet and are especially strong in Africa.
The Church’s structure and clear lines of authority make it the “most vertically integrated,” while the Holy See’s diplomatic corps has relations with 177 nations and has observer status with every major international organization, he notes.
“No global leader makes a trip to Italy without calling on the Pope, and usually that meeting draws far greater interest than a similar session with the Italian prime minister,” Allen writes, adding that the Pope is the most-quoted religious leader in the world.
Allen acknowledges that “centuries of secularization” have weakened the Church, especially in Europe where the numbers of priests and nuns have “plummeted” and less than 20 percent of Catholics attend Sunday Mass.
“[T]he church's political weight is so attenuated that it couldn't persuade the European Union to include so much as a generic reference to God in its draft constitutional document,” he points out.
However, Popes who know how to spend their remaining “social capital” can change history, Allen asserts.
To bolster his argument, the Vatican analyst notes Pope John Paul II’s role in ending communism and the joint Vatican-Islamic action in the 1990s which prevented a U.N. population conference in Cairo from recognizing a right to abortion in international law.
Allen also argues that Pope John Paul’s “staunch moral opposition” to the U.S.-led war in Iraq helped average Muslims distinguish between the foreign policy of the Bush administration and broader Western sentiment. In his view, this dampened anti-Christian backlash in Muslim states.
Pope Benedict XVI’s international influence was shown by the attention given to his remarks at Regensburg, which linked Mohammed and violence. Since then, he has made relations with Islam a “top interfaith priority” and there is “considerable evidence” this approach is working, Allen says.
The reaction to the Pope’s comments about condoms and AIDS was also proof of his influence, as was the reaction to his “stumble” in lifting the excommunications of four traditionalist Catholic bishops, including one Holocaust denier, without adequate explanation.
“In short, for good or ill, the Pope still matters,” Allen writes.
“To Catholics, of course, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, so, even if he couldn't influence a single vote or draw the interest of a single journalist, he would still be a central presence in their faith,” Allen’s Prague Post essay concludes. “Yet the most ardently convinced atheist ought to realize that religion remains an enormously important motivating force in human affairs, and that the pope is the most important religious leader on the planet.”