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The Pope's Divisions

Prepared by: Michael Moran
February 3, 2006

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When told the Pope thought Stalin should stop repressing Catholics under his yoke, Stalin famously asked, "The Pope? How many divisions has he got?" One might be forgiven for wondering why modern leaders would care, either. Yet the Roman Catholic Church, the largest denomination in Christendom, wields a subtle sword.

In January, new Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" or "God Is Love." The topic is not likely to make Stalin spin in his grave. Yet experts say there is more here than meets the eye. Like Kremlinology of old, the art of gleaning clear meaning from the Vatican is the preserve of a scholarly few. Most of them appear to think the encyclical, as Vatican scholar Lorenzo Albacete writes in the New York Times, "offers an important view of where Benedict intends to situate the church in the cultural clashes threatening world peace today."

Will this mean a revival of the tacit alliance forged against Communism by Pope John Paul II and U.S. President Reagan in the 1980s? It seems too early to be so bold. But some papal scholars, Peter Pham among them, suspect Benedict may spy in the more violent tendencies of militant Islam a way for Christianity to reclaim a foothold in Europe, where secularism now reigns supreme. President Bush, whose personal and public stands on social issues from gay marriage to abortion to stem cell research are in synch with Rome, could seek moral support from a new tack in Rome.

Iraq, however, is a big sticking point. The Vatican campaigned loudly against the Iraq war. Indeed, in 2003, the current pope—then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—said there were "not sufficient reasons to unleash a war in Iraq." As cfr.org's Lionel Beehner points out in this Background Q&A, the U.S. and the Vatican clash over foreign policy as often as they agree. Similarly, American materialism, capital punishment, and social liberalism were frequent targets of Pope John Paul II's criticism, and don't seem likely to disappear any time soon. Just last month, a Vatican-backed newspaper crossed swords again with President Bush's political base, deeming "intelligent design," a counter-argument to evolution the President wants taught in public schools, as "not correct from a methodological point of view."

American Catholics, of course, hardly look to the Vatican for political endorsements. As a highly-courted "swing vote" in U.S. politics, however, they wield significant power on issues domestic and foreign, and to the extent that the Vatican represents their deeply held views, it does have influence. Witness the rise of Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court, which, as the National Review noted last week, now has an unprecedented Catholic majority with the addition of Samuel Alito.

For more on the influence of religion on foreign policy, CFR offers transcripts of lectures on the topic; the Pew Forum examines "Pope Benedict XVI and World Affairs," and the Atlantic Monthly looks at how Benedict may change the direction of the Church in the world.

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