With 400,000 priests, a number close to the size of the US Army, it administers one of the greatest and long lasting of human institutions. It is an institution that has know and dealt with scandals, reforms, wars, intrigues and treachery. The Catholic Church knows a thing or two about getting off track and being itself an instrument of injustice and intolerance.
Yet the institution has endured and continues to be a force for good. The Church has many beliefs and institutions that are controversial. That is because it is an institution of human beings. In its flawed state it seeks the improvement of the human condition and teaches tolerance and acceptance. Benedict XVI does not appear to be a radical man, but has he assumed a radical mission to confront an unreformed, an unrepentant and non-centralized Islam? Time Magazine speculates.
The Pope Confronts Islam Time
It was not a laid-back Turkish holiday. The citizens of the proud, predominantly Muslim nation had no love of Popes. To the East, the Iranian government was galvanizing anti-Western feeling.
The news reported that an escaped killer was on the loose, threatening to assassinate the pontiff when he arrived. Yet the Holy Father was undaunted.
"Love is stronger than danger," he said. "I am in the hands of God."
He fared forward -- to Ankara, to Istanbul -- and preached the commonality of the world's great faiths. He enjoined both Christians and Muslims to "seek ties of friendship with other believers who invoke the name of a single God."
He did not leave covered with garlands, but he set a groundwork for what would be years of rapprochement between the Holy See and Islam. He was a uniter, not a divider.
That was 1979. When Benedict XVI travels to Turkey next week on his first visit to a Muslim country since becoming pope last year, he is unlikely to cloak himself in the downy banner of brotherhood, the way Pope John Paul II did during his sojourn there 27 years ago.
Instead, Benedict, 79, will arrive carrying a much different reputation: that of a hard-knuckle intellect with a taste for blunt talk and interreligious confrontation. Just 19 months into his tenure, the pope has become as much a lightning rod as a moral leader; suddenly, when he speaks, the whole world listens.
And what takes place over four days in three Turkish cities has the potential to define his papacy -- and a good deal more.
Few people saw this coming. Nobody truly expected Benedict to be a mere caretaker pope -- his sometimes ferocious 24-year tenure as the Vatican's theological enforcer and John Paul's right hand suggested anything but passivity -- but neither did church watchers expect surprises.
They generally believed that he would sustain John Paul II's conservative line on morality and church discipline and focus most of his energies on trimming the Vatican bureaucracy and battling Western culture's "moral relativism."
Although acknowledged as a brilliant conservative theologian, Benedict lacked the open-armed charisma of his predecessor. Besides, for all John Paul's magnetism, what had initially propelled him to the center of the world stage was his challenge to communism and its subsequent fall, a huge geopolitical event that the pope helped precipitate with two exhilarating visits to his beloved Polish homeland.
By contrast, what could Benedict do? Liberate Bavaria? Well, not quite. But this year he has emerged as a far more compelling and complex figure than anyone had imagined. And much of that has to do with his willingness to take on what some people feel is today's equivalent of the communist scourge -- the threat of Islamic violence.
The topic is extraordinarily fraught: there are, after all, a billion or so nonviolent Muslims on the globe; the Roman Catholic church's own record in the religious-mayhem department is hardly pristine; and even the most naive of observers understands that the Vicar of Christ might harbor an institutional prejudice against one of Christianity's main global competitors.
But by speaking out last September in Regensburg, Germany, about the possible intrinsic connection between Islam and violence and refusing to retract its essence -- even when Islamic extremists destroyed several churches and murdered a nun in Somalia -- the pontiff suddenly became a lot more interesting.
In one imperfect but powerful stroke, he departed from his predecessor's largely benign approach to Islam, discovered an issue that might attract even the most religiously jaded and managed (for better or worse) to reanimate the clash-of-civilizations discussion by focusing scrutiny on the core question of whether Islam, as a religion, sanctions violence.
He was hailed by cultural conservatives worldwide. Says Helen Hull Hitchcock, a St. Louis, Missouri, lay leader who heads the conservative Catholic organization Women for Faith & Family: "He has said what needed to be said."
But Benedict now finds himself in an unfamiliar position as he embarks on the most important mission of his papacy. Having thrust himself to the center of the global debate and earned the vilification of the Muslim street, he must weigh hard options.
Does he seize his new platform, insisting that another great faith has potentially deadly flaws, daring it to discuss them, while exhorting Western audiences to be morally armed? Or does he back away from further confrontation in the hopes of tamping down the rage his words have already provoked?