Pope Francis and the Challenges Facing the Roman Catholic Church

Mar 23rd, 2013 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The conclave to choose the new Bishop of Rome, also known as the pope, is complete.  The 115 cardinals in the conclave chose Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the 266th pontiff of the Church and the first non-European pope in 1,200 years.  He chose the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order?the first pope known as Francis.  Pope Francis is also the first pope chosen from Latin America and he is also the first Jesuit ever chosen as pope.  In many ways, the choice of Francis is significant.  For example, his choice represents a new reality:  The center of Christianity is shifting from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere, and Latin America is the home of over 200+ million Catholics, far exceeding the number of Catholics in Europe.  Who is Pope Francis and what are the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church?


  • First of all, who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?  Because he is from Latin America, 76-year old Pope Francis represents a cultural bridge between two worlds:  He is the son of Italian immigrants who settled in Argentina, where he became a leader in the Church, becoming the archbishop of Buenos Aires.  Born in 1936 in Buenos Aires, his father was an Italian railroad worker and his mother a homemaker.  Ordained as a priest in 1969 (becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 and a cardinal since 2001), he rose within the Argentinian Catholic hierarchy during one of the most controversial periods of modern Argentina, that of the harsh right-wing dictatorships that resulted in over 30,000 dissidents ?disappearing.?  The Church lost a great deal of credibility in Argentina during this period (1976-1983) because it seemed to quietly support and/or failed to criticize the repressive and violent measures of the Argentinian government (called by many the ?Dirty War?).  His role in the Church during this period remains somewhat controversial.  Nonetheless, he is known for his remarkable humility and passion for the poor.  But he is also a fierce critic of abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage, the ordination of women into the priesthood and liberation theology.  For example, in 2010, when the current Argentinian government of de Kirchner legalized same-sex marriage, Bergoglio railed against it as a ?war against God.?  He also challenged the law that permitted same-sex couples to adopt children, saying it ?would deprive children of the human growth that God wanted them to have by a father and a mother.?  In that sense, he represents continuity with previously conservative popes, including his predecessor, Benedict XVI.  He does, however, represent a much more passionate focus on issues of social justice, especially the needs of the poor and the effects on them from globalization and what he calls ?the demonic effects of the imperialism of money.?  Anthony Faiola of the Washington Post characterizes Pope Francis as ?a flashback to an old-school view of the Catholic leaders as humble, soft-spoken critics who walked among their flock and led by example?though he has also used the Internet as a tool to reach lapsed Catholics.?  He takes the bus, cooks his own meals and lives a rather austere lifestyle.  He has already eschewed some of the extravagances normally associated with being the pope.  We shall see if this continues.  He has also served on several important Vatican commissions and in 2005 is believed to have been the ?runner-up? choice of many during the conclave that chose Benedict XVI.


  • Second, what are the challenges Pope Francis faces?  They are significant and they are formidable.

1. Pope Francis and his church face a world where secularism and competing faiths, especially Islam and Pentecostal Christianity, are depleting the numbers of Catholics worldwide.  For example, a secular, naturalistic worldview pervades much of Europe and for many on that continent, Catholicism is irrelevant.  In some parts of Europe, the great cathedrals that dot the gorgeous landscape are more museums than functioning churches.  In Latin America, Pentecostal Christianity is surging, usually at the expense of the more traditional Roman Catholicism.  This is especially true in Brazil, Venezuela and other smaller nations of this region (Argentina is probably the most secular and European of the Latin American nations).

2. The Church is also facing several very real challenges that can only be characterized as a crisis of authority.  The widespread sexual abuse crisis, most of it involving pedophilia, has seriously undermined the church?s moral authority, especially in the West (the United States and Europe).  There has been extensive cover-up of these abuses and a rather alarming number of important church leaders have been involved.  Lawsuits and out-of-court settlements have cost the church financially but these scandals have also cost the Church in terms of in prestige and credibility.  This crisis of authority is perhaps the greatest crisis that Pope Francis faces.

3. Recent reports and studies have uncovered a serious management crisis within the Vatican Bank.  The Vatican Bank is under significant pressure from international regulators and watchdogs to step up its compliance with anti-money laundering rules.  Some of the charges even include money-laundering of mafia money by the Vatican bank.  This is something Pope Francis will need to deal with immediately.

4. Almost everyone agrees that Pope Francis will need to reform the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church?s bureaucracy that runs the Vatican.  In recent years, the Curia has become a court of intrigues.  It is one of the most nontransparent governing bodies in the world.  All of the administrative offices of the Holy See comprise the Curia.  Through the various document leaks, including those leaked by the pope?s butler (all now known as the ?Vatileaks scandal?), we now know that the Curia is characterized by bitter infighting and wasteful spending.  We will know the direction Pope Francis wants to go with all this when he announces his choice for secretary of state?the second most powerful Vatican official and the one who will oversee the Curia.

5. Pope Francis will likewise face the ongoing challenges that result from a growing and, in some places, an acute shortage of priests.  Connected with this is the growing strength of women in the church and the demand that they be ordained into the priesthood.  There is absolutely no evidence that Pope Francis will agree to this, but the pressure is growing and it is relentless.

Pope Francis heads a church that to some extent is dysfunctional and, in some places, in utter disarray.  The crisis of confidence is real and he must address it quickly and forcefully.  However, we who represent Protestant evangelicalism must also remember that those of the Roman Catholic faith represent one of the few allies evangelicals have had, especially on social and cultural issues.  For example, we have joined with Catholics in protesting against abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and in battles with secularism, relativism and even Islam.  Therefore, in this struggle for the heart, soul and mind of culture, it matters to us where Romans Catholicism is going.  Pope Francis faces formidable challenges and we should be praying for him.


See news reports in the Washington Post by Jason Horowitz and Anthony Faiola (13 and 14 March 2013) and in the New York Times by Rachel Donadio (13 March 2013).  PRINT PDF

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2 Comments to “Pope Francis and the Challenges Facing the Roman Catholic Church”

  1. Sr. Chekwube, IHMq says:

    I will continue to pray for His Holiness and for the entire people of God so that our faith may not fail as Christ prayed at the end of His work on earth.

  2. Nurlan says:

    Julie, thank you for posting your quiosetn and response. This has been something that I have been struggling with as well. On one hand I know that the Church sees marriage as joining of 2 souls to become 1 with one of the main focus of that marriage is to have children. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with being able to designate someone you love as being able to make medical decisions for you if you are unable, ability to avoid estate taxes when a person you lived with for 30 years passes away or have someone you can confide in. With the way the laws are set up the only way to achieve this is through marriage (unless you can afford a lawyer to prepare legal documents and this will only take care of some of these issues). The Church is not against love. It isn’t against two people of the same sex living a life together. What it is against is sex between two men or two women because that type of sex is not capable of producing children. So the way I see it is there are really 2 separate issues here that people are confusing as one. The Church is arguing that marriage between 2 men or 2 women is not right in God’s eyes because no children can come of that marriage. Don’t forget we refer to God as Our Father and Mary as Blessed Mother. The gay right movement is focused on the legal benefits of marriage. Being able to visit a partner in the hospital, avoiding tax penalties, provide health insurance to someone they love. I personally believe the gay right movement focusing on marriage and not civil unions is because they feel they would not be treated equally (it would be like a second class marriage). I do see the argument for this. We know how the south was segregated for so many years and how separate but equal was not truly equal. To me the real way to solve this to provide an easy way for someone to designate another that they would like to have the legal ability to make decisions (health, legal or otherwise), ability to designate one person (other then one’s children) that they would like to add to their health care plan, and the right to provide the house 2 people have shared for years to avoid being taxed outrageously when the other person passes. To me this would be more inline with what Jesus would be in favor of. Don’t forget that Jesus told John to take care of Mary after He rose from the dead. In our current legal and health system, John would not have been able to visit Mary if she was in the hospital or make legal decisions if she was not able to do so. I personally don’t think that is what Jesus would have wanted and we should look for a way to provide the benefits that have been attached to those that are married in the government eyes to those that do not fit into the one man/one women marriage role, but to those that are single and want to select their best friend of 20 years or two men or two women that chose to share a life together. As Catholics, we need to stop believing that the best way to stop sin is through the legal system and start looking for ways to support and truly show love to one another.