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A papal challenge to an Islamic conundrum

2014-02-05Asia Times

BEIJING - In 2011, the Catholic Church had 278,346 priests in its dioceses, 135,072 priests affiliated with different religious orders, such as the Jesuits and the Franciscans, and 713,206 nuns. That's a little more than 400,000 shepherds to look after a flock of over one billion baptized followers - a huge task.

This is the pope's army. It is tiny if compared to the 70 million party members keeping 1.35 billion Chinese loyal to communist rule, or to the some 17 million Indian civil servants tending to the needs of 1.1 billion Indians divided by caste, ethnic origin and religion.

True, priests do not have to run a country, and they often manage their parishes in collaboration with civilian authorities or professional administrators, but the spiritual needs of the people, which includes those who don't attend church, can be very demanding.

Moreover, priests are not loyal to the pope over the interests of their own countries. Gone are the days when Rome required some kind of loyalty to a political cause. Catholic priests have served as chaplains on opposite fronts in wars, for instance in the case of the Italians and the Austrians in World War I.

A pope's power, lacking the barrel of a gun to enforce it, is very limited. Yet US President Barack Obama is eager to go to Rome and see the pope on March 27, shortly after China will have convened the annual plenary session of its parliament (the National People's Congress) and possibly approved far-ranging reforms derived from the party plenum last year.

At the time of the plenum, last November, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Rome to pay homage to the pope. He met the Italian premier in Trieste, almost to underscore that this Roman passage had nothing to do with the Italian government, but only "religious obligations".

There are issues here that have little to do with the number of priests in the Church, its management as a political body and the absence of guns. What is now conveniently termed "soft power" for centuries was more broadly known as influence or the power of influence, and this was not something new to the Catholic Church - the largest unitary religion in the world.

For two millennia, the words of the pope have had a direct impact on one billion Catholics. They are also respected by some 600 million other Christians, Orthodox or Protestant, and have a bearing on over one billion Muslims - even though over the centuries both Protestants and Muslims have fought religious wars against the pope.

The pope is a special conduit for the souls of half of the world's population. No other political or religious leader can claim an appeal that is half that important. Communists, who took over almost half of the world thanks to the strength of their spiritual appeal for equality, should know very well the power of influence.

This is a general statement. Any pope is by definition of enormous importance - even the timid, reserved, and bookish Pope Benedict. With a natural communicator and dedicated pastor like Pope Francis, the standing of the Church then becomes overpowering.

Since Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis less than a year ago, more than 7 million foreign pilgrims have come to attend Sunday mass in Saint Peter's Square, despite papal encouragements to stay home. Hundreds of millions have followed his masses on TV or radio, and many million more are Tweeting and re-Tweeting his brief daily homilies from Santa Marta Church.

Italian pastors say that church attendance has increased over 30% since Pope Francis took over and apparently the same happened all over the world. Even China, traditionally not too friendly with the Vatican, has changed its old attitude, with state media reporting quite frequently on papal activities.

The pope's message is both simple and deep: he cares for the misfortunate, and since we all believe we are to some extent, we think he feels for us. This is after all the old message of Christianity, but now it seems to be working with renewed force. There are no easy explanations for this.

After a century dominated by a bitter and merciless fight between communism, fascism, and liberal democracy, ideologies have lost their old appeal. However, the fall of communism in Russia didn't bring about paradise on earth or the end of history. Democracy proved to be an instrument of government. It defeated communism because it was in fact not an ideology but a practical tool for the management of a country.

However, when it tried to become an ideology and was imposed on unprepared countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Egypt, it failed miserably. The result is a lack of strong visions about reality and the world. Every country is in fact looking after itself, with no concept of universal salvation.

In fact, the end of communism for many people also brought about the end of hope. The ones who believed in communism thought this ideology provided a means for seeking equality and a more just world. Those who fought communism in the name of liberal democracy could see that their ideal provided no paramount answer for everybody.

Quite the contrary, liberal democracy and free trade brought about a tangle of complex issues on the regulation of commerce, from the protection of intellectual property rights to the transfer (or non-transfer) of technology to the limitations of the international movement of labor force and local rules on labor to environmental protection and subsidies - all elements affecting the price of goods traded between countries.

In this jungle of guidelines and interests, the only clear lesson emerging is that every country has to look after itself and its own companies to survive the nasty competition. This has also contributed to the revival of nationalism in a country like China, locked in rivalry for economic growth and development against other countries far and near.

In this new atmosphere, many states emerged with radical ideas rooted in a new Islamic fundamentalism. Whereas Marx believed that communism could leapfrog capitalism and bring humanity beyond the tight limits of human-to-human exploitation, modern Islamic fundamentalists hark back to a world before the modern capitalism they also helped to create. They conveniently forget that in the Middle Ages, rules for trade and investment were more liberal in Islamic domains than in feudal Christian Europe.

Yet the simple return to the rule of the holy book, the Koran, was far more comprehensible than the very challenging adaptation to alien, Western, capitalist customs and regulations, which were historically associated with colonialism and foreign oppression. In many of the countries that turned to Islamic fundamentalism, variations of Marxist Islam had been fashionable. Fundamentalism then was also an answer to the need for social justice that could no longer be satisfied by communism.

Yet, the extreme violence of fundamentalists and the vicious attacks against fellow Muslims, guilty only of being moderate or belonging to different sects, has contributed to scaring many common people away from following a milder version of Islam.

The conundrum, however, is that from the impoverished Gaza Strip to the peripheries of Cairo to the rocky mountain valleys in Afghanistan - places where almost any state intervention is absent - the fundamentalist groups are the only constant presence. They care for the poor and the less fortunate; they teach children to read and write. The price for this help has been extremely steep: a demand for inhuman violence to inflict on others and on themselves.

The voice of the pope, speaking for peace, understanding, and greater social justice without appealing to violence but to comprehension, is de facto challenge to the Islamic conundrum. It can help moderate Muslims prove that the choice is not only between a naive or exploitative Western power invading countries like Iraq and an inhuman fundamentalism appealing to self-destruction by sending children to blow themselves up like a modern version of Aztec human sacrifices to the Sun God.

Common people do not need to believe in the God of Pope Francis to be moved by the words of a person talking of justice without appealing to violence and who believes that violence is in opposition to the search for greater social justice. This message is extremely powerful and is touching a growing number of people. This is happening in parts of the world traditionally conquered by Christianity or Islam.

The question is what will Asia, home to about 60% of the global population but about 4% of Catholic followers, do with this message? True, Christianity comes from the West and has made little inroads in the region, except for in the Philippines; but first communism and later neo-nationalism had and still have great sway in the different states. The first real test will come in August, when the pope is scheduled to travel to South Korea, which with more than 10% of the population Catholic has the second-largest Catholic population in Asia percentage-wise after the Philippines. We will see if the pope, who as a young man wanted to become a missionary in Japan, will go anywhere else and the reaction of the Asians to this pope.

However, the first moment to check will be the meeting in Rome with Obama. There are many domestic issues on the table. America provides about 60% of the finances for the Vatican, yet the threat to change the timeframe on the statute of limitations for child-molestation allegations could change the economics of the whole Church.

Bishops have a policy of never going to trial when a priest is accused of child molestation and always paying off the accuser outside of the courts. For this reason, many dioceses are on the verge of bankruptcy. If the present statute of limitations were changed, the Catholic Church in America - and thus in the world - could go bust. Obama may face some pressure here. But for a pope preaching for a poor church, being bankrupted by a US president could be a blessing: he would be the hero of the anti-Obama opposition in the US and those with anti-American feelings worldwide.

In that case, Obama may need Pope Francis more than the pope needs Obama. There a very important international issue on their agenda. Obama is aware that the Vatican's opposition to a US military intervention in Syria has contributed to stopping an attack. He is also aware of how keen the pope is on reconciliation with the Russian Orthodoxy. The old problem between these two branches of Christianity was the role of the czar and of the pope in the Church. But without a czar, after 70 years of persecution and isolation and with a pope keener on collegiality, the main problem for reconciliation may be the political position of Putin, who relies heavily on the church for his popular support and may be unwilling to give his Russian Orthodox back to Rome.

Then there is Asia, a new frontier for this pope and a difficult terrain for the US. The new papal position for greater justice and equality, which is breaking new ground in Latin America and Africa, could be a revelation in Asia speaking beyond communism but also well beyond nationalist tendencies, which are creating greater clashes in the region. This is especially true of the two main economies in the area, China and Japan, cornered in a dangerous friction over a small group of tiny islands. Will the pope manage to speak to the people and leaders of Asia like he is doing with the people of the rest of the world?

1. The correspondent thanks Wang Xiangsui for his thoughts and Lu Xiang and Gianni Valente for their conversations on this subject. Responsibility for this article lies entirely with the author. (2014-02-05 Asia Times)


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