Can the Pope Help Fight Terrorism?

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With the Iron Curtain long since vanished and Pope John Paul II resting in peace in the crypt below St. Peter's, why should we care whether the Soviet Union was the hand behind the 1981 attempted assassination of the Polish Pontiff? The news Thursday that an Italian parliamentary commission concluded "beyond any reasonable doubt" that the Soviets orchestrated the shooting may not forever settle this slice of intrigue. But 11 months to the day since John Paul's death, the unexpected update on this historical chapter serves as a reminder both of the papacy's unique power — and, especially today, its inherent limitations.

As unrivaled head of a worldwide flock of one billion Catholics, the Pope can exercise moral, political and spiritual influence across the globe. Granted, his words and gestures are the extent of a pope's earthly power, since as Stalin once famously quipped, he commands no military divisions. Still John Paul maximized his arsenal, which included constant charismatic globetrotting and a deft diplomatic touch. Coming to Rome from behind the Iron Curtain, he knew just what notes to hit — in public and private — to inspire his fellow Poles and others to undermine the Communist regimes.

And it was the threat of such a persuasive, publicly subversive figure, according to the non-binding Italian report, that put Wojtyla in the Soviets' firing line. A hired Turkish assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was convicted of shooting the Pontiff in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981. (After briefly being released earlier this year, Agca is back in an Istanbul prison serving time for an earlier killing of a Turkish journalist). Italian prosecutors long held that the Bulgarian secret service was working for Soviet military intelligence, but an Italian court held that the evidence was insufficient to convict the Bulgarians in the plot. The latest findings will add to John Paul's legacy as being right up there with Reagan and Gorbachev as the decisive players in the end of the Cold War.

With the fight against Communism now replaced by the War on Terror, John Paul's successor faces a wholly new, more explosive political challenge. Not only does Pope Benedict XVI not have first-hand experience "behind the lines" in a Muslim society, like John Paul's background in Krakow, but the reach of his words may be inherently limited. Rather than facing a godless society's attack on the freedom to believe, Islamic terrorism presents a warped interpretation of a competing faith.

Still, the German pontiff is not shying away from the challenge. While he is trying to reach out a hand to moderate Muslims, he is also using increasingly tough language in condemning faith-based terror. On Monday, after attacks on churches and mosques in Iraq and Nigeria, Benedict told a crowd in St. Peter's Square: "God, the creator and father of all, will call to account even more severely those who spill the blood of their brother in His name." Like his predecessor, the preacher's message is clear. Only this time, one wonders if it will ever reach beyond the choir.