Just as democracy is celebrating its first victories over tyranny and fear in the Middle East, one of its greatest advocates in the 20th century, Pope John Paul II, has issued a stark warning that self-rule does not always work.
In a new book published last week, "Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums," the pope attacks Western democratic society for being so obsessed with freedom that it has lost its sense of good and evil.
In the "negative" society of the West, the pope writes, "the principle to which people aspire is to think and act as if God did not exist."
There are such "enormous economic forces" behind the Western antigospel campaign, which supports divorce, free love, abortion, and euthanasia, that the Pope wonders whether the Western way of life is in fact a "new totalitarianism cunningly disguised as democracy."
He noted that it was a democratic parliament in Germany that allowed the election of Hitler in the 1930s. "We have to question the legal regulations that have been decided in the parliaments of present-day democracies," he wrote.
The book is the pope's fifth semiautobiographical publication. His first one sold 20 million copies.
By backing the Solidarity movement in his own country of Poland, the pope beckoned Poles to choose European democracy - an action that secured his place in history as a key figure behind the downfall of the Soviet Union. Now, he warns that Central and Eastern European countries are at risk of "falling without criticism under the influence of the negative culture so widespread in the West."
John Paul II's criticism highlights a growing schism in Europe between left-wing liberals who dominate the European Parliament and religious-minded conservatives who say that the idea of freedom in Europe has gone too far.
More significantly, the pope's remarks are a major critique of democracy at a time when President Bush is urging its spread to the Arab world.
To be sure, the pontiff holds democracy as the best form of government. But his remarks echo the warnings of some Islamic leaders, such as Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who have warned that embracing the Western model of democracy means giving up religion.
"Islam has something in common with the views expressed in this book," says Massimo Introvigne, founder of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Italy. "But so does Bush."
The common ground between the pope, the Islamic leaders, and Bush, he says, "lies in the belief that religious moral values should remain the fundamental basis on which a society is run."
The Vatican, which opposed the invasion of Iraq, has in the past indicated that exporting democracy to that country may not solve its problems.
On Feb. 7, 2004, an unsigned editorial in "La Civiltà Cattolica," the magazine of the Jesuits of Rome, which prints with the imprimatur of the Vatican, argued that implanting democracy in Iraq was a "pretext particularly offensive to the Islamic community."
The pope has since supported the election as a good development for Iraq.
The editorial claimed that by invading Iraq, the United States "[has] lent support to the impression that the West [...] intends a new colonization of Islamic countries, aimed at taking control of their oil, on the pretext of wanting to bring 'democracy,' [...] without realizing that, at least for Islamic fundamentalism, 'democracy' takes the sovereignty away from Allah and transfers it to the 'people,' which for a Muslim believer is an act of 'impiety.' "
"It seems the Vatican is concerned about the kind of freedom the Middle East may soon discover," says Roberto Menotti, a political scientist at Rome's Aspen institute.
Coming just weeks after President Bush's inaugural address, which set forth his manifesto on human freedom, the pope's remarks are stirring debate about what, exactly, freedom and democracy should entail.
"The main question the pope is raising," says Introvigne, "is whether humans should be free to make laws as they please or is there a law of God that nobody can breach?"
For the pope, the evolution of some Central and Eastern European countries who have embraced capitalism without restraint, is cause for concern.
"We are now at a peak of the domination of so-called freedom values," said Ingo Friedrich, who is vice-president of the European parliament, where he represents the People's Party.
"When you have very high levels of wealth, the danger of freedom overload is always higher," he says. "If the donkey gets too fat, he falls through the ice," he says, quoting a German proverb. "We are definitely at a time when people are wondering how far this freedom thing will go."
"What the pope is really saying is that democracy is good for people only if it does what the Catholic Church says," said Franco Pavoncello, political analyst at Rome's John Cabot University. "But the whole point of democracy is that there is no blueprint. People get to choose how they want things to be done."
"In Rome, no one's listening to the pope's warning," wrote the newspaper La Repubblica, after mulling over the pope's words for a week. Recognizing the pope's arguments over human rights on question such as abortion and gay adoption, La Repubblica's Andrea Manzella argued that Italy's and Europe's Constitution both have careful procedures for laws to be challenged if they seem to infringe human rights.
"After the end of the ideologies of the 20th century and especially after the fall of Communism, various nations have pinned their hopes on democracy," the pope writes. "Which is why it is so important now for us to ask ourselves what democracy ought to be."
"Laws made by men, by parliaments," he added, "must not be in contradiction with natural laws, that is with the eternal law of God."