LEADING ARTICLE : The only rock of our age

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The Independent Online
Politicians are in trouble everywhere. They desperately trim and change their messages but still cannot please fickle voters for long. Even the once-solid British monarchy faces a crisis of legitimacy. Yet amid the collapse of pedes-tals, the Pop e stands tall.

Today Karol Wojtyla arrives in Manila for the latest of the hugely popular international tours that have characterised his 16-year papacy. He has been to the Philippines before, but that will not diminish a trip that is being billed as "the second coming".

Pope John Paul II, one of the great Cold War warriors, might have been expected to slip from public interest with the fall of Communism. His rigid views and obsession with sexual morality would seem to render him irrelevant to the individualism and consumerism that drives human society. Yet as he has redirected his ire from Marxism to the perceived sins of liberalism, he has retained his position as one of the great crowd-pullers.

Named last month as Time magazine Man of the Year, the Pope has hit the pop charts with a CD featuring him reciting the rosary. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, his meditation on the existence of God and other matters, is a best-seller. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, published last year in English, is a hit.

It is difficult for many people to fathom the Pope's appeal. Much of his teaching, particularly on sexual morality, seems to be honoured more in the breach even by those who cheer his arrival on another foreign shore. Were he ever to face a Roman Catholic electorate, he might discover the deep disenchantment that exists among the lapsed who feel abandoned by his conservative reign.

Yet neither of these observations should detract from his popularity. His power lies in the very absolutism that has alienated so many. He is a rock amid moral confusion. Even if he is only a rock to kick, or to admire from afar, the Pope is an unchanging and reassuringly familiar feature on the human landscape.

In an encyclical published in 1993 and entitled Veritatis Splendor, the Pope warned against "ethical relativism which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life". It is to such uncertainty and a longing for transcendent truth that this grandfatherly, authoritarian figure responds with the manipulative skills of an actor and an integrity born of genuine religious conviction. Love him or hate him, this ageing pope is now the only truly global leader left.