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. Sequester Grundelplith MD


    March 17, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  2. EX catholic

    Calling all IDOLATERS to the new RCC belief Blog!

    March 17, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  3. Hodor

    could god create a gay guy so tempting that even he couldn't resist him?

    March 17, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  4. Vlad the Pale

    Why does the pope have a golden septor? Is it to ward off the evil demons that are running around? Or is it all part of the act; a grand charade of smoke and mirrors used to seperate poor idiots from the little money and brains they have? I vote for the latter.

    March 17, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  5. Taco Consumer

    The vatican is worth billions of dollars. Billions. Why not use some of that money to help people? Because it is a scam. There is no magic sky man. People who are fooled by dark age clothing and mythology are brainless sheep.

    March 17, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  6. Leon Spinks

    No one is guiltier than those who follow the fiction of the Judeo/Christian mythology, taking tiny bits of existence and thinking it is the whole thing. Oh, and I likthes eggths man, luvths them eggths.

    March 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  7. Phone Jobs

    Dead indited content material, Really enjoyed examining.

    March 17, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • AB

      Really enjoyed your redundancy a lot too.

      March 17, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  8. AB

    I find the biggest mystery is how, under the same socio-economic conditions, people can "seem" so different.

    Are we so different? Is that even possible? Or do we just have different abstracts to describe the same sets of things?

    If we claim to be people of science, we must engage the questions we have about the world with our tools, not our emotions. We must apply the same rules of science to all things we seek to understand.

    March 17, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
  9. AB

    Jesus; just let it go.

    March 17, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  10. kimsland

    My 'reaction', is why in the hell do we still have people believing in god MYTHS?

    I find it very funny that a new clown has been appointed, lets all laugh at the ridiculous fool (he believes in fairytales – fool)

    March 17, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • AB

      We can only apply the sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology to figure out this mystery.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • kimsland

      Thanks AB, that does answer my question 🙂
      I was really being rhetorical but actually I alike the answer, originally I thought it was just craziness but now I see there are other possibilities.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
  11. Fake HeavenSent

    Hi real HS!

    March 17, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
  12. JoeFattal

    First thing francis need to do is to find out how many pedophiles are still around. Second he needs to send a message to his pedophiles not to get caught. Third but not least he needs to tell them you get caught you back in civies. Be tough Francis.

    March 17, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • Leon Spinks

      Firth thing Franthis neeths to do ith eath thum eggths, that's what he need to be doin' man.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
  13. Correctlycenter

    End Religion: Yes, I believe the 66 books of the bible is an accurate historical record of the nation of Israel and the surrounding nations. Yes, I believe there was a literal Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Xerxes, Daniel, Isaiah, Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, and the 108 prophecies that Jesus Christ fulfilled as proof that He was the Messiah.

    That He was born of a virgin, in Bethlehem around 3 BC. There was a Roman named Pontious Pilate who was governor of that area, a literal King Herod who was a puppet king of Israel under Rome. That Jesus Christ was stapled to a cross and died. On the 3rd day He literally rose from the dead and walked, talked and ate in His resurrected body with about 500 eyewitnesses as Paul states and the apostles report. All these events could not have been "dramatized" by thousands upon thousands of scribes, prophets and people of God to support some grand scheme of a man-made god, throughout the centuries for what purpose? Christ changed and continues to change lives, heal the sick, cast demons out and saves countless people from eternal destruction. The bible is the truth my friend, and God is real, whether YOU choose to believe in Him or not. He created everything you see. All these things in the universe and on the earth cannot just suddenly appear from nowhere and just come into existence. Like a fine car, a well built house, it takes an engineer, car assemblers and construction workers to build these things. God created everything. He is an awesome God and I am sure He has blessed you too. Praise God...

    March 17, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      So you are saying that the bible is correct in the historical record but the rest of the historical references which correspond with each other that contradict it are wrong? Is this some grand conspiracy? In fact, if so, why does the bible contradict itself on when Jesus was supposedly born in Matthew and Luke?

      March 17, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      I cannot for the life of me understand why people put faith in a book that is so full of contradictions.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • A Conversation

      @Godfreenow...that's becuase they're aren't any contradictions. Yourcited web site (as if a web site was accurate) is wrong. If you would objectively study the historical, cultural and linguistic background, including proper interpretation of oral history, you would find that you are wrong...ask questions, and you will discover the truth.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • clarity

      Now exactly who wrote those gospels? Answer – no one knows for sure.
      Are we certain that they have separate authors? Answer no, we're not.

      When challenged that the anonymous gospel writers plagiarized, all that several early Christian apologists could come up with as an excuse was that the devil had set up things to look bad. They claimed that he disseminated the fake pagan stories to come before the "real" gospel stories. They may have just as well had said "Don't look at that man behind the curtain, we are OZ!" wink wink

      Read about 'plagiarism in anticipation' (Justin Martyr and others).

      March 17, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      @A Conversation
      I come from a religious background. I need only cite my own studies of the bible for 18 years in the christian school and home that I come from. The web reference is just an easy guide for people to explore. Does science contradict itself? No. That's because if there is a contradiction, the underlying notion must be false or at least inaccurate. If you find yourself having to justify and explain this many contradictions, then you must start questioning your motivations and your dedication to the truth. You CAN find truth in the bible. You just have to see past what you're being told or want to believe to see it.

      March 17, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • TANK!!!!

      "The bible is the truth my friend, and God is real, whether YOU choose to believe in Him or not. "

      Why is it true? What etymology are you using that the rest of us and the most learned people on the planet aren't, and why isn't it being used to take us to Mars, cure polio, and eradicate hunger all over the earth?

      March 17, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
  14. Journey

    I'm a catholic, congrats to Pope Francis but I don't understand all the "humility" everyone keeps claiming this guy has. Most of these cardinals, especially the ones in Latin countries, live like feudal lords. You want real humility on the chair of saint peter go find some burned out hospital administrator or aid worker somewhere. That would be humility and I would say the scandals might start disappearing.

    March 17, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • Akira

      He is first and foremost a Jesuit. They live extremely simply. This is why when he WAS the Archbishop in Argeniina, he lived in an apartment instead of the Cardinal's mansion.
      Not all Cardinals act the same.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I agree with Akira. He was a Jesuit and lived a significantly different lifestyle. I've no idea if he was humble or not but his lifestle was more "humble" (I think this word is overused these days) than many others.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  15. Atheist, me?

    When you understand that loving others as yourself is a human not a Christian thing you will know the difference between pride and self esteem.

    March 17, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Leos Spinks

      You sure be luthin' all up on youself a lot man lol! You need to find a fine bitch-ass ho man!

      March 17, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Leon Spinks

      Leos, it's "bith ath" man. Come on man.

      March 17, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      I thought your original post was implying it was a christian-only thing.

      March 17, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • Atheist, me?

      Yeah Santa it was only when I understood that it wasn't a Xtian thing that I understood the Bible. Hope u just flow with it. I love u as myself.

      March 17, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • AB

      @Atheist, me?

      So you are the one!

      March 17, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Atheist, me? When you acknowledge this is Jesus' truth and you atheists didn't pull the concept out of thin air, then we will be on the same page. Until then, you atheists will continue to be on the front lines doe insuring that there are a zillion pages to be on. It's the old divide to separate the masses. And you atheists fell right into it.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
  16. kevobx

    Is God with America? Not when they are giving millions of dollars to Egypt, Assyria and Israel in real time. Money answers all things. *Isaiah 19:23-25*

    March 17, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • End Religion

      First step, prove a spiritual realm exists.

      March 17, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      End Religion, instead of being blinded by your mission to destroy man made religion, why not open you eyes to see how clueless you are to what you are really doing. Hey, but, good soldiers just take orders without asking advanced questions.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
    • End Religion

      What I'm doing is help increase the percentage of "nones" in the U.S. I've been successful, don't ya know? Religion is dying. You have been unsuccessful. *sniff* *sniff*

      March 17, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
    • TANK!!!!

      "why not open you eyes to see how clueless you are to what you are really doing."

      I pose the same question to you, Expelled From Hell.

      March 17, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
  17. Atheist, me?

    I appoint you my Ambassador to my Christian friends. Tell them you love them as yourself and they should learn to love others as themself too. Coming from you most will listen.

    March 17, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Thanks for the vote of confidence. I don't share your confidence. Some of those christian folk are mighty hateful especially on the day they refill their god-juice.

      March 17, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Yes, love the atheists that want to destroy our country from within.

      Makes sense to you because you fools never tried to help, just continue to destroy. "oh, but we want to build a better mousetrap". Every generation wanted to do the same. Then they grew up and realized that Jesus Christ is truth. That's if you work at having eyes to see or ears to hear. That means, get off your lazy butts and learn His truth instead of whining.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
    • End Religion

      Your jesus and your god never existed!
      Bible contradictions:

      March 17, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
  18. Eric Carney

    The church is not built by the blood of Christ. The sons and daughters of man are saved by the blood of Christ. Once the child of God is covered in his blood they can enter the Church in His kingdom, or they can walk the streets of gold, or maybe walk in his fields and enjoy the small child playing among lions and tigers.

    March 17, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Leon Spinks

      Or smokthes thum mo pot like you man!

      March 17, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • End Religion

      Only a death cult member would find any value in dousing people in blood. Grow up, neanderthal.

      March 17, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      End Religion, ahhh, tune in, the death cult member is you fool.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
    • End Religion

      Sweet come back there, li'l HeavenSent, Jr. Complete disregard for any apparent truth. But no one expects any less because you're just another hypocritical religious loser.

      March 17, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • TANK!!!!

      "they can walk the streets of gold, or maybe walk in his fields and enjoy the small child playing among lions and tigers."

      The imagery always cracks me up.

      March 17, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
  19. Atheist, me?

    When a man refuses to love his neighbor as himself he sounds foolish coz he lacks self esteem. Atheists does this sound like the definition for you?
    Then love your neighbor as yourself.

    March 17, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
    • Leon Spinks

      Well I don't knows about no lovin up on no neibhors man, but I luvths them eggths tho!

      March 17, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Atheist, me?

      I love you as myself. That makes me your neighbor. So there, love me as yourself too or to be precise tell yourself that!

      March 17, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Try telling your christian friends that!

      March 17, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • Leon Spinks

      I likethes eggths.

      March 17, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  20. Sports Fan

    Akira said, "If anything, it would be the majority – Christians – who would make that doomsday scene happen. I don't believe that, either."

    Perhaps not Akira, but the Bush's only have two outs and the game isn't over until the final out.

    March 17, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • Leon Spinks

      Well I don't know muches 'bout baseballs Thports Fan, by I luvths them eggths. try 'em over eathsy or thunny side up!

      March 17, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
    • Akira

      I said that in response to CC's assertion that atheists will bring the downfall of this nation.
      Bush II, clearly a good Christian, is more of a threat to this nation than any atheist is.
      Jeb's son is now entering politics. That may be strike three.
      Plus, I meant Christianity as a whole, not any one person.

      March 17, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
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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.