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The Pope's Pessimism Borne Out

October 11, 1998|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc is the author of "Pope John Paul II: The Biography."

ROME — On the eve of the 20th anniversary of his election next week, Pope John Paul II contemplates with sadness the truth of his warnings about the perils of "human alienation" under runaway capitalism. There is also discreet, but rising, concern in Rome about the future of the papacy as the millennium nears.

Little less than a decade ago, with the Soviet empire in the final stages of collapse, the Polish-born pontiff warned that "unbridled" capitalism would be no improvement over "savage Marxism." Today, he sees his predictions come true, from crisis-stricken Asia and Latin America to Russia and Eastern Europe. One billion people, one-third of the world's labor force, are unemployed or underemployed, according to the International Labor Organization.

The pope is so concerned about this state of affairs, in the midst of the greatest global financial crisis since World War II, that he has quietly assigned, for the first time, a senior Vatican diplomat to maintain direct, permanent liaison with the president of the World Bank and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund in Washington. He fears potential social unrest and instability from one end of the world to the other. In fact, at the IMF annual meeting last week, the bank's president, James D. Wolfensohn, urged the financial community to remember "the dark, searing images of desperation, hopelessness and decline" among the poor everywhere.

All along, the pope has been sounding the alarm about rampant greed and corruption. In his 1991 Centesimus Annus encyclical on material and moral poverty, the pope wrote that "there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces." He then asked whether, after the failure of communism, "capitalism is the victorious social system, and . . . should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society?" He answered: "If by 'capitalism' is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality . . . then the reply is certainly negative."

When the pope returned last month from his summer vacation, evidence supporting his pessimistic outlook was mounting everywhere. It is a painful blow to this pope, whose reign is entering its final phase. According to a recent United Nations report, peoples' expectations "have gone global, but the affluence has not." Twenty percent of people in high-income countries account for 86% of the world's private consumption, while the poorest 20% of the world's population consume only 1.3%. The richest fifth buy nine times as much meat, have access to 50 times as many telephones and use 80 times more motorized vehicles and paper products than the poorest fifth. Two billion people now live on incomes of $400 annually (in rich countries, the average is $19,300). According to the same U.N. report, Americans spend more annually on cosmetics and Western Europeans on ice cream than it would cost to provideprimary education, safe drinking water and sanitation to more than 2 billion people, nearly one-third of the global population, who lack them.

At the threshold of the third millennium, the pope is also deeply disappointed over the diminishing influence of the Roman Catholic Church under his stewardship and his inability to achieve Christian unity despite his ceaseless efforts at ecumenical understanding. The church's shrinking impact is the result, presumably, of his unbending opposition to abortion and all forms of birth control, as well as his ever-hardening theological conservatism. Since his 1978 election, church membership, as a percentage of the world's population, has shrunk from 17.8% to 17.4%, though the actual number of baptized Catholics has risen from 750 million to 990 million.

What is most hurtful to the church is the movement of millions of Catholics in the Americas and Europe to Protestant denominations. The number of priests in the world, meanwhile, has declined by 2.8% since 1978; consequently, the ratio of priests to laypeople has been dropping alarmingly, notably in the United States, where there is now one priest for every 1,117 Catholics.

The fate of the papacy itself is a major concern around the Vatican these days. Though the pope maintains a rigorous work and travel schedule--he is to visit Poland, Mexico, the United States, Romania and Iraq in the next 12 months--his health is visibly and disturbingly fragile. Inevitably, speculation regarding succession rises in Rome, though even the most knowledgeable Vaticanists discern no obvious candidate to succeed the aging pope (his is the second-longest pontificate in the 20th century, after Leo XIII, who died in 1903 after 25 years on the throne).

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