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Wide reach of papal clout

By , Sophie Arie / April 8, 2005


As 1.1 billion Roman Catholics turn their eyes to Rome, awaiting the selection of their next pope, the other four-fifths of humanity also has much at stake in the choice the cardinals will make.

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Although modern popes don't enjoy the preeminent political clout of their medieval predecessors, they arguably exert more influence on moral issues - reaching far beyond the ranks of Catholic faithful.

Indeed, Pope John Paul II, who will be buried here Friday in a ceremony expected to draw millions of people - including as many as 80 heads of state - shaped the papacy into a global institution, projecting his personality through the media to extend the authority of his office.

The next pope is expected to build on that media outreach to spread the Catholic Church's message. And he will be bolstered in that effort by the presence of Vatican embassies in 175 of the United Nations' 192 member states - one more than the United States maintains.

This geographic spread makes the church "more germane to this age than any political structures" says Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of England. "The imperative of the 21st century is 'think global, act global,' and that is exactly what the Catholic church does."

Before the Iraq war, for example, the pope was one of the few figures to talk to leaders on both sides of the conflict, receiving Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Vatican, and sending envoys to Baghdad and Washington in a bid to avert violence. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Aziz's title.]

John Paul II gave voice to the concerns of millions, warning President Bush that he was assuming "a grave responsibility before God, his conscience, and before history."

That illustrated what Rabbi Sacks calls the pope's role as a kind of moral global positioning or navigation system. "The most important thing is that you key in the destination," he says. "However many wrong turns you take, it recalculates your route. Politicians hold the steering wheel and can take wrong turns, but the satellite navigation ... reminds you of your destination."

The next pope will hold "an extraordinary position of moral influence and soft power," says Joseph Nye, former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., who invented the term "soft power" to describe the force of suasion by example. "How he chooses to use that position can be of great importance."

That will probably be a key consideration for the 117 cardinals who will meet in a conclave on April 18 to select the next pope, hoping to pick a man who can repeat Karol Wojtyla's feat of earning respect from a diverse range of figures, from President Ronald Reagan to Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Though the pope no longer commands armies - prompting Joseph Stalin's famously dismissive question "The pope! How many divisions has he got?"- his authority can stop armies in their tracks: Hitler kept his troops out of Vatican City. And the late pontiff's 26-year reign offered considerable evidence of the power of ideas to change political landscapes just as radically as infantry.

Nowhere was this clearer than in John Paul's homeland, Poland, where his homilies during a visit in 1979 inspired opponents of Communist rule to organize Solidarity, the dissident trade union movement that eventually brought down the government in Warsaw. That unexpected victory sparked similar revolutions in neighboring countries, dismantling the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe.

Likewise, leaders of the "People Power" uprising in the Philippines that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 later said that they had drawn strength from the pope's sermons on human rights during his trip to Manila five years earlier.

How much political influence?

Those successes for the pope, however, were bluntly offset by his impotence during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, when Messrs Bush and Blair set aside his admonitions against going into battle. "Where was the impact of the pope's declarations on Iraq?" asks John Cornwell, author of a critical biography of the pope. "He was listened to but ignored."

That, perhaps, is as it should be, says Rabbi Sacks. "Religious leaders are not democratically elected," he points out.

But a pope's moral weight can put a price on such political decisions when they run counter to his will, argues Professor Nye. "A pope cannot dictate to [political] leaders, but he can raise public opinion that makes decisions more costly" for them, he says.

Ever since the institutional papacy arose from the ashes of the Roman Empire, pontiffs have not hesitated to throw their weight into secular matters.

In 452, when Attila the Hun threatened Rome, it was Pope Leo I who went out to meet him, and, legend has it, so impressed the invader that he withdrew.