The Pope and the World: Then and Now


When the Roman Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals meets next week to select a new leader for the world’s more than one billion Catholics, they will begin their deliberations by considering the needs of their Church and the situation of Catholics in the world.

It was just this set of deliberations, 26 years ago, that brought a little known Polish priest, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to the papacy.

Same considerations, but a different world.

Back then, the center of gravity of the Church was still Europe. That continent was divided, with the east under Communist rule. Western Europe, on the other hand, has prospered in the post-WWII period. But here, the Catholic Church was concerned with the legacy of anti-Semitism and the erosion of spiritual values due to growing materialism.

Problems existed elsewhere, as well, especially in largely Catholic Latin America where crushing poverty had spawned revolutionary movements against the region’s corrupt and repressive regimes.

Into this world, Cardinal Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II, brought his distinctive leadership. The first non-Italian pope in 550 years, he took his Polish heritage seriously. In his first public address as Pope, for example, he spoke directly to Catholics of Eastern Europe, repeatedly telling them, “Do not be afraid.” Then, in his historic visit to Poland in 1979, he spoke even more sharply, repeatedly telling the millions who turned out to greet their “native son,” “Do not be defeated.”

It was not only the new Pope’s words that made a difference. The Church’s role in organizing this huge public mobilization helped to unleash a broad social movement that ultimately led to the unraveling of Soviet control and the downfall of Communism.

In fact, it was just one year after the papal visit that with the logistical and even financial support of the Catholic Church, the Polish Solidarity movement was launched.

John Paul II continued to travel throughout his papacy and challenge, especially in Europe, a range of issues inherent in the existing order. He confronted Europe’s legacy of anti-Semitism that had led to the Holocaust. He spoke out against Europe’s colonial conquest of indigenous peoples and the poverty, debt and underdevelopment this had produced in the Third World. He confronted the decline of morality and challenged what he called the “culture of death” that, he said, defined a growing and problematic values system in the West. And he condemned the economic abuses of capitalism, advocating for workers’ rights and the need to eradicate poverty.

In the Middle East, the Pope also took significant initiatives. An early supporter of Palestinian rights, he repeatedly met with Yasser Arafat, despite vigorous objections from the US and Israel. As he had reached out to Jews, John Paul II also made historic overtures to Muslims, visiting a mosque and acknowledging the wrongs of the Crusades. Finally, this Pope, consistent with his opposition to war, was a vigorous opponent of the war in Iraq, calling it “a defeat for humanity” and “illegal, immoral and unjust.”

But John Paul II’s anti-Communism and his conservatism and traditionalism also caused him to take positions that were criticized by some. In Latin America, for example, his aversion to Communism and his belief that the Church’s association with revolutionary movements was dangerous, caused him to rebuke populist priests, urging them instead to work with the very governments they opposed. And John Paul II’s protection of traditional church structure and practice brought him to strongly oppose any expanded role for women and to appoint political and theological conservatives to key Church posts.

Today, while facing some of the same moral and theological challenges, the Catholic Church exists in a very different political world than it did in the late 1970s. Communism is gone and Europe is no longer the center of concern. Two-thirds of all Catholics live in the Third World. While the number of Catholics has grown slightly in Europe and North America, they have doubled in Asia and Latin America, and tripled in Africa.

In many African countries, and in Europe, Catholic-Muslim relations are a critical concern. In Latin America, the Church, though growing is facing a serious challenge from Protestant evangelicals and in the Middle East, where Christianity was born, the Christian community is rapidly disappearing.

At the same time, some serious social problems have only grown in magnitude. The moral decline in the West, due to materialism and the “culture of death” remains a grave concern, as does the rampant poverty that plagues Latin America and Africa. Add to this, the AIDS pandemic and continuing tribal conflict in Africa-all these define a full agenda that must be addressed by the new Pope.

The Cardinals who will choose the next Church leader are, themselves, quite different from the group that chose John Paul II. Of the 117 who will vote, John Paul II appointed 114. While half of this group is European, as they were in 1978, the percentage of Italians has dropped significantly. In 1978 one-fourth of all Cardinals voting were Italian; today they are just one-sixth.

Will this group choose an African pope to pursue Muslim-Catholic dialogue, or an Italian conservative to reinforce Church doctrine? How modern or how conservative will the next pope be? To some degree, we may know when the white smoke rises over St. Peter’s Square. But as was the case with John Paul II, the evolution and impact of the new pope will be determined, not only by the man chosen, but also by his interaction with the dynamics that unfold in the world in which he will serve.