A GREAT MAN’S SUCCESSOR Dr M. Manzoor Alam (April 25, 2005)


Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam mulls over the change of leadership in the Roman Catholic church

When the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the successor of Pope John Paul II on April 19, he inherited the goodwill of a large number of people. Many of those people are not Roman Catholic, some not even Christian. That is a plus point for the church that John Paul II had led for close to three decades with great distinction.

That could also be the problem of the 77-old new pontiff, who has assumed the papal name Benedict-XVI. His predecessor was one of those giants of history before whom even great men are likely to look small, a risk that Pope Benedict XVI will inevitably run. His predecessor had other, quite obvious advantages. To begin with, he was a highly athletic, fit person when he became the pope, and a full two decades younger than his successor was at the time of ascension.

The Roman Catholic church, which grew impressively during John Paul II’s papacy, has fewer worries in the developing world. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the Catholic community is said to be highly observant, an obedient flock with which the new shepherd should have no difficulty. The real source of anxiety for Benedict XVI’s  predecessor was the community spread over the developed world, that is, North America, Western and Northern Europe. It is in the developed world that people are distancing themselves from Christianity, because they are unable to find plausible answers to the existential questions in the church. This is going to be a challenge for the new pontiff as well.

To be fair to Western European and other less observant Catholics, the stance of Vatican on some common problems of developed societies is so out of sync with the spirit of the age that believers have no option but to live by their own rules and follow their own conscience, instead of following the church. One such area is contraception. John Paul II’s pontificate was against contraceptive measures being taken even by people suffering from AIDS. To common humanity this stance seems outright dangerous, and even morally questionable. However, the new Pope is not likely to change that stance.

The Vatican’s position same-sex marriages had the support of Muslim and Jewish religions leaders as well. People advocating such marriages complained that the church was being insensitive to their human rights. Pope John Paul II regarded it not as a question of human rights, but one of physical and mental health. He was convinced that homosexuals were physically and emotionally sick, needing medical and psychiatric help. Women clamouring to be ordained as priests were also asked to keep quiet. These policies are unlikely to change anytime too soon.

There are certain areas in which Islam and Christianity are in the danger of stepping on each other’s toes. In Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq and South-East Asia, some Muslims are reported to be converting to Christianity. The growth of Islam in parts of Africa is said to worry the church. This may continue for some time to come. A reassuring point is that over the last several decades the Roman Catholic Church has categorically dissociated itself from every kind of war and violence. Hence a clash with Muslims in contested terrain is not inevitable.

Mourning and condolences from the Muslim world were reported on Pope John Paul II’s passing. He had built bridges with Muslims by being the first pope to visit a mosque. Along with accepting Israel’s right to exist within secure boundaries, he stood for the Palestinian right to a state of their own. No wonder, the late Yasser Arafat was a welcome visitor. Pakistan’s former president Gen. Mohammad Ziaul Haq requested him to pray for his ailing daughter. The Muslim world would like it that under the new pontificate the late John Paul’s legacy of interfaith contacts is respected.g      (See also: Condolence resolution on Pope John Paul II's demise)

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