Now, I think I understand. The pontiff is a globaliser. He can feel the world’s geopolitical plates shifting. He grasps as well as any politician or business leader that the west has had its day. The opportunities to spread the gospel lie elsewhere – in societies more respectful of authority and less questioning of past crimes.
Deja vu all over again. The Roman Empire lingered for a thousand years in Byzantium after the serial sackings of Rome (in sync with that first fruit of schism, the Orthodox Church); its center of gravity had shifted in the century preceding. Perhaps that's what John Allen, Benedict's biographer, has in mind when touts the Pope's long view:
[Allen] recently told the FT’s Rome correspondent that the Holy Father was untroubled by crises of the moment because he had the “great gift of thinking in terms of centuries”.
Mr Allen, as it happens, has also charted the shift in the church’s demographic centre of gravity. Catholicism is booming in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Europeans and North Americans, Mr Allen calculates, now number only 350m in a church of some 1.2bn. About two-thirds of Catholics live in what is the emerging world – about 400m of them in Latin America. Brazil boasts twice as many communicants as Italy. Mexico and the Philippines have larger congregations than Germany or France.
This perhaps is where Pope Benedict’s gaze is fixed. Catholics in the emerging nations, after all, have been largely untroubled by the scandal that has rocked his authority in the west. They are less inclined to challenge the pontiff’s moral absolutism and his demand for unquestioning obedience to Rome.
This long view isn't long enough. Though it doesn't happen overnight, globalization erodes authoritarianism. As societies get wealthier, they chafe under the old oligarchs --of the intellect and spirit as well as of the purse and police. The Church will exhaust its new markets quickly if it doesn't change as they change. If the Pope believes that his flock in the developing world will continue to swallow palpable absurdities like Papal infallibility and, more generally, the notion that the word of God can be nailed down definitively, he's thinking in decades, not centuries. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends not only toward justice but toward freedom and reason as well.
The Church's long lens is facing backwards.