Exposed in the West, the pope looks East
His organisation lords it over 1.3 billion souls. Authoritarian and unconstrained by electoral cycles, it is sometimes credited with the mythical ability to plan years, if not decades, ahead. Its authority rests on doctrinal rigidity and to enforce it, it periodically engages in purges of followers suspected of becoming too independent. No, I am not talking about the Communist Party of China, but the Vatican.
They may be spiritual foes but, as political organisations, sometimes they look like twins. The Holy See is, at the moment, cracking down on one of the more hopeful and progressive movements in the Catholic fold - American nuns. This month, the Vatican has accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious - an umbrella group representing most nuns in the US - of harbouring 'radical feminist themes'.
The nuns allegedly focus too much on poverty and economic injustice and not enough against abortion and gay marriage. They are suspected of secretly supporting women priests. The nuns are untainted by the scandals over paedophile priests and diocesan cover-ups. They may be Catholicism's best hope in the US. But to accommodate the progressive nuns, the men of the Vatican will have to reform. Far better to shut up the women; a bishop has been appointed to oversee them.
If the crackdown upsets or disillusions many American Catholics, the pope does not seem bothered. The man has a ruthless streak. In July, he took the extraordinary step of recalling the Vatican ambassador in Dublin, in an apparent protest against a blistering attack by the Irish prime minister on the Vatican's role in covering up sexual abuse of children by Irish priests.
To halt the decline of Catholic faith and authority in the West, reforms are needed in Rome - but that's heresy. Instead, the way out for the pope is to focus on countries like China and other emerging markets, places where worshippers are less critical of authority and more ignorant of church crimes. As John Allen, a biographer of Pope Benedict, said, the Holy Father has the 'great gift of thinking in terms of centuries'. In the 21st century, the pope understands the future lies in the East.