Having successfully dispensed with both communism and liberation theology, Pope John Paul II has targeted the Church's two remaining major problems in the Western Hemisphere: Protestantism and capitalism.
In what might be termed his Max Weber tour, the pope visited Mexico City and St. Louis in January to energize the faithful on the eve of a Jubilee and to articulate the Vatican's post-Cold War message. The papal entourage's Mexican costs were picked up by two dozen multinational corporations, who in return became "official sponsors" of His Holiness.
John Paul's remarks about Protestant missionaries and their alleged coercion of converts received little U.S. attention. His anti-capitalism, however, made headlines. The pontiff decried surging "neoliberalism," a system "based on a purely economic conception of man" that holds "profit and law of the markets as its only parameters." In such a world, said the pope, "the powerful predominate, setting aside and even eliminating the powerless."
Given that this message was underwritten by, among others, Mercedes-Benz, Federal Express, Hewlett-Packard, and Sheraton, it resonated oddly. Pepsi, for example, was presenting itself on billboards as refreshment for spiritual palates (its tagline was, "Mexico, Always Faithful"). The most controversial arrangement involved a brand of potato chips owned by Frito-Lay, which bought the right to stuff a variety of little John Paul II trading cards into its bags of chips.
Trading in things churchly has been a notorious source of difficulty for the Vatican in the past. Most famously, the indulgence business was a major reason for the spread of Protestantism in the first place. But while the potato chip deal may not compare with the paid remission of sin, the commercialization of the pope (and of Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe) astounded many observers, who charged church officials with hypocrisy.
Perhaps they should have charged them with irony instead. At a news conference called to address the din of criticism, the papal nuncio to Mexico and the archbishop of Mexico City explained the arrangements this way: "We live in an era of advertising, and we are men of this era."