By M.J. Akbar. This article was first published on Dawn.
KAROL Jozef Wojtyla, the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries, did not get elected to the throne in 1978 merely through a throw of electoral dice.
The central purpose of his papacy was not advertised when he became John Paul II, but has become a proud part of the official narrative today.
He rose to prominence in 1964, when he was named archbishop of Krakow: three years after the Berlin Wall cemented the partition of Germany and two years after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world as close as it has come, before or after, to nuclear devastation.
It was the coldest period of the Cold War, and John Paul II was assigned the most difficult job of his era; as shepherd to his Catholic country, Poland, through the dictatorship and depression of communist rule. His mission was upgraded when he reached Rome: to destroy the Soviet Union from within, through the subversive influence of the church and its allies.
Through an exquisite paradox, the workers’ paradise of Lenin and Stalin was blown apart by men like Lech Walesa and their trade unions. Even the normally discreet CIA has let it be known through friendly authors that it worked in partnership with the papacy against the Soviet empire.
John Paul lived on till April 2005 but his principal mission was complete when the Soviet Union lay in smithereens by 1992.
The Vatican did not wait for the minimum five years to begin the process of his beatification, which took only a fast four years.
One requirement is performing a miracle. Officially, John Paul is said to have cured a French nun of Parkinson’s disease. This does seem a bit far-fetched given that the saintly pope could not cure his own Parkinson’s; but John Paul’s real miracle was to help bring down the seemingly impregnable Soviet dispensation.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina has not become the first non-European pope in 12 centuries through accident either; or indeed because his genetic origins are Italian. The most powerful religious order in the world has not survived by being sentimental. The 115 cardinals of this year’s electoral college displayed a sharp understanding of geopolitics and assessment of where they believe lies their true challenge in the foreseeable future.
Observers, including sympathetic ones, tend to transfer their own concerns to the Vatican. It was thus widely inferred by the commentariat after the sudden abdication of Benedict that the new pope would be chosen on the basis of his ability to address contemporary concerns like the ban on abortion, or gender equality in the clergy, or the horrifying abuse of children by priests who are required to be celibate.
Instead, we have a pope who is deeply conservative on such social issues. The Vatican views child abuse as a problem, not a plague. As defenders of the status quo point out, this crime is limited at best to just four per cent of the priesthood. It is therefore something that the church can deal with without upgrading a dilemma to a crisis.
The Vatican, in my view, sees the coming decade as a historic opportunity to negate a far greater threat.
Latin America is home not only to the largest bloc of Roman Catholics, but has also seen the rise of a radical new left. The old left has been in retreat after the Soviet Union’s collapse. China has preserved some important elements of traditional doctrine, principally atheism, but has escaped economic implosion by converting state socialism into state capitalism. China is a story that awaits denouement.
But, quite surprisingly, Cuba defies the odds, and shows no signs of changing its colour. It has discovered strong allies like Venezuela, whose pugnacious Hugo Chavez has been transformed into some sort of secular saint after his recent death.
A subcontinent tortured by vicious military dictatorships continues to nourish leftists through democracy. Would it be a stretch to assume that the first Latin American pope’s true calling is to destabilise Cuba and challenge the left in Latin America?
The Vatican does not camouflage antagonism. When critics questioned the new pope’s record during the junta days in Argentina, Federico Lombardi, its spokesman, said, “There has never been a credible, concrete accusation against [Francis I.]
His accusers are] anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the church.” The church has fashioned its response. If Cuba crumbles, then the barricades are breached.
Pope Francis is being promoted as “pro-poor”; this is obviously essential if he wants to wean the Latin poor away from the left.
John Paul used trade unions; Francis could use slums. Barack Obama has done his bit by describing Francis as “a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us”.
The first stories about him talk of simplicity. This is not to suggest that the stories are untrue; merely that this is the ideal profile in the church’s coming confrontation.
What odds that the first Asian pope, perhaps in the 2020s, will be from China?