March 16th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

The pope's four biggest challenges

By John L. Allen, Jr., CNN

Editor's note: John L. Allen Jr. is CNN’s senior Vatican analyst and a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

Rome (CNN) - Every new leader gets a honeymoon period, and Pope Francis is smack dab in the middle of his. His gestures of simplicity and humility, set against the traditional grandeur of the papacy, have captured the imagination of the world.

Frankly, a whole team of PR wizards couldn’t have scripted a better start to his papacy.

At some point, however, charm alone won’t be enough, because Francis will have to turn to the heavy lifting of actually governing the world’s largest and most centrally organized religious body. Taking stock of where Catholicism stands today, he’s got his work cut out for him.

Four challenges loom especially large for the new pope.

First, two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet today live in the Southern Hemisphere, a share projected to reach three-quarters by mid-century. If Catholicism was once a Western faith, associated with institutional power and privilege, its center of gravity is now in the developing world and its membership is strongest among the poor.

As the first pope from Latin America, and the first pope from outside Europe in more than 1,000 years, Francis carries the aspirations and expectations of all those non-Western Catholics with him into the papacy. They will expect him to be a tribune for their concerns: the inequities of a globalized economy, the carnage of war and violence, environmental degradation, and the perception that international affairs are stacked against the interests of smaller and poorer nations.

Sooner or later, a heart that's in the right place won’t be enough for those folks. They’ll expect Pope Francis to revive the diplomatic and political capital of the papacy, perceived to have diminished during the Benedict XVI years, in order to move the ball on their agenda.

It remains to be seen whether a 76-year-old intellectual, perceived to have had a rocky relationship with Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, will be able to fulfill those expectations. It’s obviously unreasonable to expect one man, even a pope, to solve deep-seated maladies such as poverty and violence by himself, but the growing share of Catholics suffering the burden of these inequities at least expect him to try.

5 things to know about the new pope

Second, the most harrowing Christian storyline of the early 21st century is the rising tide of anti-Christian violence and persecution in various global hotspots. From the Middle East to Sub-Saharan Africa, from India to Eritrea, Christians today often find themselves in the firing line, and they’ll expect the new pope to have their backs.

The statistics are staggering. According to the International Society for Human Rights in Frankfurt, Germany, fully 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. According to the Pew Forum in Washington, Christians face some form of harassment in 137 nations, two-thirds of all countries on earth.

In the most bone-chilling assertion of all, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary claims that an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed for the faith each year for the past 10 years. That works out to 11 new Christian martyrs every hour of every day for the past decade.

Some experts believe that estimate to be inflated, but no one disputes the big picture. In Europe and the United States, a threat to your religious freedom means you might get sued. For scores of Christians in other parts of the world, it means you might get shot, which obviously rates higher on the urgency meter.

Christians under threat will expect Pope Francis to act on their behalf. Many believe that Benedict said the right things but never mobilized the resources of the Catholic Church to make an effective difference on the ground.

The first test for the new pope is likely to come in Syria, where Christian leaders are terrified that they’ll be the next Iraq, meaning the next country where Christians are the primary victims of the chaos and rising Islamic militancy that follows the collapse of a police state. Last fall Benedict XVI tried to dispatch a high-level delegation of five cardinals to Syria to appeal for peace, but it fell apart amid confusion about its mission.

A complete outsider to the world of the Vatican, Francis will be challenged to get his hands around its diplomatic apparatus quickly and to use it effectively.

Third, Francis inherits the unfinished business of the clerical sexual abuse scandals, which represent the greatest blow to the moral authority of the Catholic Church in centuries. In many ways, Benedict XVI was a reformer on the scandals, meeting with victims, apologizing for their suffering and embracing a “zero tolerance” policy for abuser priests.

Bergoglio's journey to the top of the Church

Critics, however, believe the process of reform has a long way to go, beginning with accountability not just for the priests who abuse but for the bishops who cover it up. The world will be waiting for a clear signal from Francis that his legendary “closeness to the people” includes compassion for abuse victims, and that prelates who mishandle abuse complaints will pay a price.

He’ll also have to make hard decisions on other unresolved questions about the abuse scandals, such as whether to impose a “mandatory reporter” policy on all bishops worldwide, requiring them to relay all allegations to civil police and prosecutors, and whether to order dioceses to release their files on accused priests.

There may well be good reasons for not taking those steps, at least as a matter of binding global policy. There are some corners of the world, for instance, where police and prosecutors don’t always have the best interests of justice at heart, and a policy of automatic cooperation could be tantamount to a suicide pact. At minimum, however, Pope Francis will have to explain the logic for his choices in a transparent fashion, in order to convince the world that the Catholic Church has turned a corner.

As history’s first Latin American pope, Francis is especially conscious that so far the sex abuse crisis really hasn’t exploded across the developing world as it has in Europe and North America. That may impose extra pressure to get ahead of the curve, sparing the Church in his part of the world the painful experiences of Catholics in the West.

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Fourth, Pope Francis also inherits a Church in Europe and North America that appears to be increasingly at odds with the surrounding secular culture.

In the United States, the Catholic bishops and other Christian leaders are still wrestling with the Obama administration over contraception mandates issued as part of health care reform, with the specter of prolonged litigation and nasty public fights. In the United Kingdom, several Catholic adoption agencies have been shut down after the 2010 “Equality Act” made it illegal for them to refuse to place children with same-sex couples.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, considered the leading intellectual light among the American bishops, issued an ominous forecast in 2010: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

These tensions with the broader culture are exacerbated by divisions within the Church. A Pew Forum poll taken shortly after Benedict XVI announced his resignation found that 46 percent of American Catholics wanted the next pope to move Catholicism in a more progressive direction, while 51 percent wanted him to maintain its traditional teachings. That’s a fair reflection of the deep left/right divide within the Church.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus famously says that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” In many ways, the Catholic Church across the West is just such a house divided, plagued by tensions among competing tribes – pro-life Catholics versus the peace-and-justice crowd, liturgical traditionalists against innovators, dissident theologians against hard-line bishops, not to mention the free-for-all of the Catholic blogosphere, where no spleen ever goes unvented.

Francis will be expected to reach across those fault lines, reminding Catholics of what they have in common rather than what divides them, and working out a modus vivendi with an increasingly skeptical secular world.

Despite being a staunch theological conservative, Francis has a lifetime of experience within the Jesuit religious order, where the center of gravity tends to be more to the left. Perhaps that background will give him a leg up on trying to heal fractures within the Church, and in its relationships with the wider world.

So far, Pope Francis hasn’t made many substantive moves to address these challenges, but he has gone some distance towards reframing the debate.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

Traditionally, critics accuse the Catholic leadership of being out of touch and drunk on its own power. That’s likely to be a harder case to make against a pontiff who shuns his limousine in favor of taking the bus, who packs his own bags and pays his own bills, and who makes his own phone calls.

Those may be small touches, but popes teach as much with their deeds as with their words, and so far Francis’ gestures have spoken to a humbler, simpler style of leadership.

Gestures alone won’t spare the pope tough choices. They may, however, incline the world to give the pope making them a greater benefit of the doubt. For a Church that’s long had an image problem, this alone can’t help but seem an awfully promising start.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Pope Francis • Vatican

soundoff (684 Responses)
  1. Monk

    Babylon The Great–rev 4:5

    . 5 For her sins have massed together clear up to heaven, and God has called her acts of injustice to mind. 6 Render to her even as she herself rendered, and do to her twice as much, yes, twice the number of the things she did; in the cup in which she put a mixture put twice as much of the mixture for her. 7 To the extent that she glorified herself and lived in shameless luxury, to that extent give her torment and mourning. For in her heart she keeps saying, ‘I sit a queen, and I am no widow, and I shall never see mourning.’ 8 That is why in one day her plagues will come, death and mourning and famine, and she will be completely burned with fire, because Jehovah God, who judged her, is strong.

    September 27, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  2. Leftcoastrocky

    Catholic Church needs to enter 21st century as to treatment of divorced parishioners

    September 21, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
  3. Dave Harris

    One problem he doesn't have is figuring out where his next meal is coming from. That distinguishes him from most of his followers. Maybe he could buy them some food with all that gold and jewelry he has.

    July 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  4. James Conway

    Jesus is Lord!

    July 3, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  5. SoullessTechnocrat

    If they aren't the most persecuted, they should be. Consider the Holocaust retribution for every man, woman and child in the land of Cannaan. It's time to bring back the lion dens, let more of these god warriors join their jew on the cross. Humanity needs no gods to lead it!

    June 20, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
  6. danielwalldammit

    Putting a highly questionable past behind him would seem to be a pretty big part of his challenge.

    June 2, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  7. Science

    For all creationists and ID believers...............IT only takes minutes to figure IT out. No fairy in the sky needed !

    New Device Can Extract Human DNA With Full Genetic Data in Minutes

    May 6, 2013 — Take a swab of saliva from your mouth and within minutes your DNA could be ready for analysis and genome sequencing with the help of a new device.


    And NO ANGELS then old pope KICKED them in OFF the TEAM last year !

    From Soup to Cells—the Origin of Life


    Pope's book on Jesus challenges Christmas traditions

    By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN

    updated 10:56 AM EST, Fri November 23, 2012


    May 9, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
  8. web technology

    We are seeking suggestions about the way to improve the level of remarks by myself blog site, exactly how do you reach your goals in doing this? web technology http://xenonoutlet.co.uk/

    April 9, 2013 at 1:19 am |
  9. ChristianIsaac

    Who needs a new pope to keep us in the right path. I see the Catholics looking up to saints and the pope, enough with that GOD deserves all the glory and praise.

    April 4, 2013 at 2:58 am |
  10. bob

    I hear this new Pope is really into austerity. He's going to limit himself to just one altar boy a week.

    March 26, 2013 at 6:39 pm |

      You are truly a one note wonder, get some new material.

      April 4, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  11. kevobx

    The pass over for the Jews! *Exodus 33:22-23 And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen. *Psalm 78:56-57 Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies: But turned back, and dealt unfaithfully like their fathers: they were turned aside like a deceitful bow. *1st Timothy 5:15 For some are already turned aside after Satan.

    March 20, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  12. kevobx

    Every one of these religious churches are called spiritual prison houses! The people have become the I, my and we congregations. That is all they know. If you put God first, the truth must be first, not you worrying about an image, to have friends in the world (James 4:4 whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.) *Psalm 78:1-72 will set you free. My people are redeemed. *Psalm 77:15 Thou hast with thine arm redeemed thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah. (Revelation 7:4 the 144,000 all the tribes of the children of Israel)

    March 20, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  13. kevobx

    All words with red in them, describes Esau. You are being monitored by Esau. (Numbers 18:15)

    March 19, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • End Religion


      Deuteronomy 22:13-21 – "If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's vîrginity unto the elders of the city in the gate…. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him; and they shall amerse him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he has brought up an evil name upon a vîrgin of Israel; and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days. But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virgînity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she has wrought folly in Israel, to play the whøre in her father's house…."

      March 19, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  14. kevobx

    The world is self centered see the Esau red in them. *Romans 3:10-11 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. *Proverbs 23:24 The father of the righteous shall greatly rejoice: and he that begetteth a wise child shall have joy of him.

    March 19, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • End Religion

      If you could verify Jesus was not resurrected, if you managed to undoubtedly find his tomb, open it and see him still inside, would you still believe?

      March 19, 2013 at 8:02 pm |

      End Rel...If you atheist could have found it, you would have done it by now...

      April 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • Guessing

      End. I've personally experienced astral travel. I can only assume it's what they mean by "ressurection" and all that. But yes it happens.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:01 am |
  15. kevobx

    All of these Satanist, scarf wearing, hankerchief people. Satan get behind thee. All that cunning purple is spiritual death (Psalm 75:10)

    March 19, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • sam stone

      wow, a quote....pretty impressive, kev

      March 19, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  16. Over 40,000 denominations of insanity

    Some believe the Pope is the Anti-Christ.

    Some believe that celibacy is appropriate for certain people, or for certain positions. It's ridiculous. Celibacy is unnatural and will continue to cause problems for the religious institutions that employ it.

    Many of the people from these same institutions advocate against abortion, but don't understand the realistic benefit of the morning after pill or even basic contraception; their unrealistic wishful thinking is causing the death of many at the hands of disease. Realistically, many abortions could be avoided if a morning-after pill were not viewed as such an evil option. Many of these same people bring children into the world at a high pace, and then would prefer that the rest of society take over and educate their children in their particular brand of religion when they don't plan well.

    In the U.S. recently we learned of the head of Lutheran CMS chastising a minister of that church for participating in a joint service for the victims of the Newtown school shooting.

    One sect calls homosexuality an abomination while the next one in the same denomination is already performing gay marriage.

    One sect, the Westboro Baptist Church believes Americans are being killed at war because America is too kind to "fags".

    One sect believes that Jesus and Satan were brothers and that Christ will return to Jerusalem AND Jackson County, Missouri.

    One sect believes women to be subservient, while another sect in the same denomination promotes equality between the sexes.

    Conflicted right from the very beginning, Christianity continues to splinter and create divisions and more extremism as it goes.

    Has anything improved with Christianity since 200+ years ago?

    Thomas Jefferson, POTUS #3 (from Notes on the State of Virginia):

    Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

    James Madison, POTUS #4, chief architect of the U.S. Constitution & the Bill of Rights (from A Memorial and Remonstrance delivered to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785):

    During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

    John Adams, POTUS #2 (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, 09/03/1816):

    I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved – the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced! With the rational respect that is due to it, knavish priests have added prostitutions of it, that fill or might fill the blackest and bloodiest pages of human history.

    Ben Franklin (from a letter to The London Packet, 3 June 1772):

    If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practised it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England, blamed persecution in the Roman church, but practised it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England.

    Thomas Paine (from The Age of Reason):

    All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

    March 19, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Clarity = Miss Spammer

      Hey! Just as there are different religions and different theologies within a religion, there are different sects of atheists: libertarian atheists, Marxist atheists, scientific determinist atheists, existentialist atheists, humanist atheists, Nietzschean atheists, etc., etc.

      March 19, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  17. Reality

    Why the fuss over a man no better or worse than any human who ever existed?

    Tis mind boggling that this man and his religion can be brought down to earth in less than ten seconds. With this in mind should not the moderators of this blog and their buddy Stevie P be looking for new jobs?

    Again for the new members:

    To wit:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    March 19, 2013 at 12:28 am |
    • Atheist, me?

      Mr Reality
      I know u r well-versed in the theology of religion so let me ask two questions of you:
      1) Do you believe you can love your neighbor as yourself?
      2) Do you believe your neighbor can love you as yourself?
      I will be waiting for your reply. I love you as myself and I know you do too.

      March 19, 2013 at 1:59 am |
    • Reality

      "As a concept, the Golden Rule has a history that long predates the term "Golden Rule", or "Golden law", as it was called from the 1670s.[1][6] As a concept of "the ethic of reciprocity," it has its roots in a wide range of world cultures, and is a standard way that different cultures use to resolve conflicts.[1][5] It has a long history, and a great number of prominent religious figures and philosophers have restated its reciprocal, "two-way" nature in various ways (not limited to the above forms).[1]

      Rushworth Kidder discusses the early contributions of Confucius (551–479 BCE) (See a version in Confucianism below). Kidder notes that this concept's framework appears prominently in many religions, including "Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and the rest of the world's major religions".[7] According to Greg M. Epstein, " 'do unto others' ... is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely."[8] Simon Blackburn also states that the Golden Rule can be "found in some form in almost every ethical tradition".[9] In his commentary to the Torah verse (Hebrew: "ואהבת לרעך כמוך" ca.1300 BCE):

      You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

      —Leviticus 19:18[10], the "Great Commandment

      And as an obvious human, common sense rule of conduct, most humans follow said rule including myself.

      And did Jesus utter the Golden Rule? Apparently not !! See http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb033.html for an analysis by some contemporary NT scholars.

      March 19, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • Atheist, me?

      So you were too afraid to answer the question. I did not ask you whether you believed Christ said the Golden Rule. I asked you ehether you love your neighbor as yourself and believe you can be loved by another in the same way so please answer.
      I still love you as myself.

      March 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @The troll formerly known as Nii

      You calling someone else scared to answer a question is truly the pot calling the kettle black. You don't answer shit, ever. You say the same empty platitudes without demonstrating any reason to believe the other crap, and constantly run from threads to post the same inane idiocy elsewhere. Your projection is staggering, and your self-righteous attitude is common.

      March 19, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • Atheist, me?

      Are you saying I should find a way to reply to your insults with similar venom when I tell you I love you as myself?
      Also I use a phone which now allows me to stay on threads unlike my previous phone which could not use the reply button efficiently. Lastly we live between 6-10 time zones apart. I think my work does not permit me chatting away between 0800 and 1700 GMT. I sneak in a comment when I'm free. So pardon me for any previous running away, ok?

      March 19, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • Reality

      As previously noted:

      "And as an obvious human, common sense rule of conduct, most humans follow said rule including myself."

      March 20, 2013 at 8:20 am |
  18. HotAirAce

    Chad, Austin, Topher & fred?

    March 18, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
    • Austin

      can i get a copy? check. 10-4.

      March 18, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
  19. nik

    I love the fact that India is on the list of places where Christians are persecuted. Get this: 1 billion folks with 4 different major religions (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Jews) in an area the size of Texas...the only way they can live in harmony is if you live and let live. For 2000 years Christianity has been in India without persecution. In fact the most powerful Indian politician is a Roman Catholic woman. Though Christians are less than 10% of the population, Christmas is a National Holiday. Recently, Evangelical and Proselytizing Christians have upset their neighbors and disturbed this co-existence. This serves the fringe and explosive articles like this, but it's bad for the community.

    March 18, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Atheist, me?

      Do you know how to count Sir cos you tolfcas India hsd 4 major religions and then mentioned seven. Ms Ghandi's party fears for her life so a Sikh man was made Prime Minister. Hindus, Bhuddhists, Muslims, etc are all proselytizing and evangelical religions. So why should it be an issue when xtians do it. As usual a handful of fanatics like yourself who are self loving social climbers spoil the peace for none issues. Balance my foot!

      March 19, 2013 at 2:11 am |
  20. max3333444555

    many of the conclusions in the article are based on suspect data such as a christian group determining that christians are the most persecuted religious group...

    March 18, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.