Behind his triumphs, a fading power to heal: The crowds still flock, but this week has shown up Pope John Paul's weaknesses, says Andrew Brown

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THE VISIT of Pope John Paul II to Zagreb today looks, on the face of things, to be one of the most memorable triumphs of his papacy. When he celebrates Mass in the open air before an expected crowd of 600,000, it will be a sort of baptism for Croatia as an independent Catholic state and an integral part of Europe, after 900 years of Catholicism and three years of independence.

It may appear almost a repeat of the Pope's great triumphs in Poland in 1979, when another nation which had existed as a cultural rather than a political fact was brought to life by the potent brew of Catholicism and nationalism.

But the appearance is deceptive. This week the Pope's agenda has suffered two of the worst and most public defeats of his primacy, one in the Balkans and the other in Cairo at the World Population Conference. The policies and style which have brought him so many triumphs now seem to lead to easily predictable defeats. His own health is poor, but that of his papacy much worse.

The Zagreb trip was originally planned as part of a wider tour of former Yugoslavia, which would also take in two other capitals - Belgrade and Sarajevo. By visiting all the countries involved in the war the Pope could have become a symbol and agent of peace and reconciliation. But the plan shows all the signs of being conceived in an atmosphere where no one dares any longer to tell the man in charge he is wrong.

The Vatican may see itself as above the wars in former Yugoslavia, but none of the other parties there do. Its recognition of Croatian independence in January 1992 - two days before the European Community did so - was one of the defining moments in the process that led Yugoslavia into civil war. The Serbian Orthodox church has been unwavering in its hostility to the proposed visit.

The present Croat Catholic hierarchy has a fine record of resisting the fascist and revanchist tendencies of the Zagreb government. But there are elements in the Croatian church which have no such scruples; and when Croat troops go into battle with icons of the Virgin Mary pasted on to their gun butts, it takes a peculiar sort of piety to believe that Catholicism is solely a force for peace in the region.

No one disputes the Pope's sincerity and longing for peace, but successful diplomacy also requires a capacity to enter sympathetically into the mind-set of your adversaries - a quality he seems to have lost altogether.

Two months before the planned visit to Bosnia, the Pope granted Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian president, a papal knighthood for services to human rights. It was, apparently, given in recognition of his time as UN Secretary- General, not of his time as a German intelligence officer in the Balkans fighting alongside Croat forces in the Second World War.

No one doubts the Pope's great bravery, either. But in his proposed spectacular visits, to Beirut as well as to Sarajevo, the overriding consideration appears to be whether he himself will be in danger. The fact that 25,000 civilians might have gathered in the open air, as much under the Serbian guns as he would be, seems not to have entered the Vatican's calculations until the last minute.

Yet when the Pope's chief spokesman, Joaquin Navarro- Valls, praised his bravery recently in the Wall Street Journal, he did not mean his physical courage but his steadfast defiance of almost all Catholic as well as uncommitted opinion. Dr Navarro-Valls, writing on abortion and contraception in an attempt to whip up support for the Vatican's position ahead of the Cairo Conference, had to recall the great victory against Communism: 'The Holy Father has more than amply answered Stalin's question about how many troops the Pope had. He had more than enough to help undermine Stalin's empire.'

Unfortunately for this argument it has been clear in Egypt that the Pope, though he may have the officer corps and the staff, hasn't actually got the troops.

The unprecedented size and publicity of the Vatican's campaign to keep contraception and abortion out of the final Cairo statement is not a sign of strength, but of increasing weakness, in contrast to the successful clandestine campaign it waged to keep population off the agenda at the 1992 Rio summit on the environment.

The Vatican will probably succeed in ensuring that a group of about 10 countries - the most prominent being Argentina, Ecuador and Malta - will refuse to sign the more controversial sections of the final document. It has already dropped its filibuster of the proceedings. This is hardly a triumph to stand alongside the fall of Communism, and it has been bought at a huge price in prestige.

Frances Kissling, the president of an American Catholic feminist lobby group, asked this week: 'How come a so-called country, that is in essence 800 acres of office space in the middle of Rome, that has citizenry that excludes women and children, seems to attract the most attention in talking about public policy that deals with women and children?'

In terms of hard politics, the answer has always been that the Vatican can deliver votes. There are 950 million Catholics, and few political leaders feel able to ignore their opinions. In fact the only world leader who need take no account of Catholic opinion is the Pope himself. And now it is clear that this disregard has been reciprocated.

Catholic countries have some of the lowest birth rates in the world. Catholic voters find their consciences telling them to ignore the Pope in the polling booth as well as the bedroom.

John Paul II has accomplished great things. He has helped to bring down Communism and in his social encyclicals he has set in place the foundations of the only serious intellectual and spiritual defiance of capitalist consumerism. These achievements are rooted in his upbringing and character: they have been accomplished by virtue of his being a Pole and a philosopher.

But this week his concomitant weaknesses have seemed to overwhelm him. The Vatican's position at Cairo has been fatally weakened by the philosopher's insistence on linking contraception and abortion in one rigid framework. Abortion is recognised, even by its advocates, as always the lesser of two evils. But to call artificial contraception 'an intrinsic moral evil' devalues the language of morality, even for people who believe that abortion is always murder.

It is too late to expect this Pope to change. He is 74 and in frail health. He has taken the Catholic church about as far as it can go in his direction. The Vatican, under a new Pope, will no doubt be able to mend fences in the Balkans and maintain its new friendships in Tehran and Tripoli. It is more difficult to see how it can retain the support, both moral and financial, of the Western middle classes who believe in reason, democracy, and women's rights.

(Photograph omitted)