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.

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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.

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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. Dr Wayne

    This church is run by old men staunchly against 'any' change. This is the way it's been for hundreds of years and it will continue on it's normal irrelevant path.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  2. Sbul

    Calling Catholicism the "largest religion" is misleading as the Buddist religion has more adherents thus, they would be the "largest " religion and the Dali Lama would be their spiritual leader.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  3. Dr Wayne

    Nothing will change.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  4. The real Tom

    A question: How does Reality, who claims he loves s3x, ever have time for any when he's always posting interminable drivel here?

    Oh, never mind. I forgot that he just pastes the same crap over and over.

    I'll bet s3x with him is just as repet itive and dull.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  5. Bootyfunk

    "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."

    he's taken next to zero responsibility. that's the whole problem. victims have been swept aside while protecting and promoting the abusers - under Benedict's watch too. they have hindered police and prosecutors. they've hidden doc.uments that would have helped put these monsters in prison. they've sent abusers to another church to do it all over again. the pope should receive zero praise for his zero effort.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  6. FYI

    Christianity not only brings on feelings of guilt, but its promotion of death over life is morbid. The fact that a cross, a symbol of suffering, torture and death is the icon of the faith illustrates that Christianity is a philosophy of death and has turned real human values into non-values. Suffering has become noble and death has become eternal life. Pictures and illustrations of blood gushing wounds on the fictitious Jesus abound almost everywhere and blood rituals such as communion are core practices in almost every church in the world. The bloody image of a man on a cross desensitizes the faithful and causes them to believe that suffering and misery are expected and death is the only escape. Christianity teaches that all people are evil and destined to a life of pain and suffering and hope only lies in the salvation of Christ and his assurance of a heavenly reward after we die and those who do not believe will be eternally punished. I find it hard to contemplate a more evil system.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:30 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      christianity = masochism

      March 17, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Federal Yankee Impostor is back, and spews his nonsense. Get back to the idiot box.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • The real Tom

      Rainer says: "ACHTUNG!!"

      March 17, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  7. qazoo

    The challenge for the church got loss by electing a 76 year old that by the time he gets a handle on things, which he never will because of his age, and the fact he hails from another generation and era.

    He was elected to keep the biggest congregation of Catholics, that being the Hispanic from leaving as other ethic groups have done over the last 40 + years. 1.2 billion Catholics may sound impressive but not when you consider that they where more then Islam in the 1950's, which stands at over 6 billion today.

    And then how many of those 1.2 billion are practicing Catholics, I myself haven't in over 40 years.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      funny part is, he's Italian, not latino heritage. he was born in latin america by italian parents that emigrated there. but that's why they picked him - to bring together the latin vote. sure, africa's gaining, but a black pope is out of the question. so we get a sort of latin pope that's really italian.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  8. stevie68a

    Prayer does work! You can pray to jesus and sometimes your prayer is answered. You can also pray to a lamppost or a fire
    hydrant, and sometimes your prayer is answered.
    End the delusion of religion!

    March 17, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • JesusChrist Son of God Son of Mary Brother to the Holy Ghost

      Nail the pope to a cross, and then see if he can come back from the dead. I did it, or at least of bunch of mindless sheeple think I did. Then he would be doing something.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • JesusChrist Son of God Son of Mary Brother to the Holy Ghost

      Nail the pope to a cross, and then see if he can come back from the dead. I did it, or at least of bunch of mindless sheeple think I did.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  9. Jerry Hoefen

    Pope should concider being more vocal about right to life . In whole church has lost its vision of christ life on earth why christ pressance is so important that we protect life.Man has lost the vission of how life in present we all share actually is billions years in making. Life force gives us life actually millions of years old with out it we be dust in wind

    March 17, 2013 at 10:20 am |
  10. JesusChrist Son of God Son of Mary Brother to the Holy Ghost

    The popes 4 biggest challenges: 1) Prove I exist [and I don't, so have fun with this one], 2) Get the church to stop dressing up in clown clothes, 3) Get some babes in the hierarchy [I would become a priest if Upton was there] and 4) give the church money to the poor.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:16 am |
    • JJ

      Why would these things be challenges? They would be challenges if they were interested in trying to convert rational people but there are no challenges at all to keep the stranglehold on their already captured gullible sheep and continue to rape their children.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • jasmine

      @JJ, there are challenges because the church can no longer take anything for granted. It lost Europe, is in the process of losing North America. More and more Latin Americans are slowly but surely following the North American pattern where Catholics move on to evangelical churches, or give up organized religion altogether. I'm a medievalist, and the church has never faced anything like this in its history. The Reformation was close, but there it had state backing. It also had state backing in its battles against less orthodox heresies. Here it has very little state backing. It's on its own.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  11. Acegirlshusband

    I think one of the biggest challenges for Francis is keeping those white vestments and robe clean. For god's sake, don't wear that to dinner.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:15 am |
  12. An Awesome Message from P.W. Swivel


    March 17, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • JesusChrist Son of God Son of Mary Brother to the Holy Ghost

      Excellent! Watch this.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  13. Rainer Braendlein

    The evil clown from the seven hills

    The above article labours under the misapprehension that the pope still had any temporal power. The pope has power only inside the Roman Catholic Church, there he is even God, but outside the RCC his power is about zero.

    Imagine Francis would call Obamba, and command him he should stop gay marriage in the United Sodoms, sorry I meant United States. Obamba would answer: Dear Francis, I appreciate you as a great spiritual leader but concerning the affairs of the US you should not meddle in, kiss my a-ss; if you don't stop meddling in we will send some missiles to Vatikan-state.

    Also when the pope would call Mrs. Angy Merkel, and command her that she should forbid abortion she would merely burp, and tell him that Germany doesn't belong to his realm, and he should fry his own fish.

    Today the pope is mererly allowed to tell his atti-tudes through speeches but he cannot enforce his will by violence. The pope has not more power than the German Ferderal President who is also an idiotic clown who always speaks about freedom but doesn't take care of the happiness of the German people, he is just a ridiculous fake.

    The role of the pope is that one of an evil clown which helps the current temporal leaders to keep the fiction they had any fear of God. Together with the temporal rulers the pope sucks the commen herd, us naive people who don't realize what is going on.

    Of course, the role of the pope as an evil religious clown more and more comes to and end. Less and less the temporal rulers see any need to keep the fiction they would be pious in any way. The Beast is about to show its true face, and the common herd will submit to the Antichrist who degrades them to stupid animals who are allowed to labour in his factories, and to hang around in front of the idiot box the rest of their sad life.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  14. Wootings

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

    Translation: fewer and fewer people today are so daft as to believe in fairy tales such as offered by any religion. How does one keep convincing people of the grandeur of the Emperor's new clothes, when it's becoming more apparent every day that he has none?

    March 17, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  15. stevie68a

    jesus is imaginary, jesus is imaginary. Shout it from the rooftops!

    March 17, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • ogre12

      He is not an illusion to well over 1.2 billion followers. You will see Him for yourself at your appointed time whether you want to accept that or not. I pray that He touches your heart as He has countless others including mine and opens your eyes before that appointed time.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  16. TG

    Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was among the Catholic religious leaders, being the Provential Superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina from 1973-79 (then became rector of the seminary in San Migel in 1980-86), that said nothing when the military junta under Jorge Videla committed so many atrocities. In Argentina, in the seventy's and early eighty's, Roman Catholic clergymen cooperated with brutal regimes so as to maintain their place of prominence, power, and wealth.

    An editorial with the headlines "Blood taints church in Argentina" in the National Catholic Reporter, dated April 12, 1985, said: "The story of the Catholic church's failings in Argentina is one of silence and complicity with a ruthless military regime, (under President Jorge Rafael Videla [term of office -1976-81], in which more than 6000 people disappeared without a trace[ the Washington Post (dated March 16, 2013) puts that number as many as 30,000), one of the worst in recent history. . . . Church prelates were thus in positions to speak out and make a difference, perhaps even strip the regime of its religious justification. Yet, almost to the last man, they said nothing. Some, including clerics in military uniform, endorsed the torture and killings...the Argentine church – with a few heroic exceptions – was volubly silent throughout the seven-year terror," which ended when a civilian government took power in 1983.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:06 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      The Roman Catholic Church has always been a house of hypocrisy, and will always be. The Roman clergy is not concerned about the soul's health of the Catholics but is merely greedy for honor, power and riches, they just suck the naive flock.

      Once, the great true pastor of the flock, Jesus Christ, will condemn all popes, and they will be tortured in the Lake of Fire together with Judas Iscariot and the like. Jesus told St. Peter he should pastor his sheep, and St. Peter indeed overcame his carnal diseres for honor, power and riches, and took care of the flock, the Christian Church. The popes never overcame the carnal state. The popes resemble the evil flesh of Peter but not the Peter who was transformed through the Spirit of God. Oh popes how foolish you are.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  17. jrvinnh

    The new pope should take a hint from how Mikhail Gorbachev dealt with the old Soviet Union: declare the whole thing a dismal failure and close the doors forever.

    March 17, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  18. JesusChrist Son of God Son of Mary Brother to the Holy Ghost

    So, Francis rides in the bus with all the other cardinals. Pays his bill at this hotel. A crusader for the poor. Will he sell the artwork at the vatican to help the poor, and pay the legal cases for the priests, or continue to take money in from all the flock?

    March 17, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • snowboarder

      speaking of mary, that is one lie about infidelity that has just gone too far.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  19. Brandyjack

    Saint Francis was unique. Tying his faith to the Jesuits, Society of Jesus, may make some interesting results. Remember, the Jesuits were "disestablished" by one Pope for not being sufficiently dogmatic. Saint Francis demonstrated that all life, including animals deserves consideration.

    March 17, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  20. obamaphone

    I wish Obama could run for a third term.

    March 17, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Dan Jones

      It would be better if he dropped dead.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • obamaphone

      You're right. I'm just a moron I guess.

      March 17, 2013 at 10:05 am |
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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.