5 challenges Pope Francis will face

Given the size of the Roman Catholic Church, there is no end to the challenges its new leader will face, but it's not hard to spot a few overarching issues for Pope Francis as he takes on his role, David Perlich writes.

Governance among issues for new leader of Roman Catholic Church

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 13, 2013. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

The white smoke has cleared, and now the real work begins.

Pope Francis has accepted an enormous burden. He's the leader of a Roman Catholic Church beset with grave challenges. Amongst them: a dysfunctional curial government culture, a church whose reputation has been plagued by scandal, and questions over its relevance in the modern world and the everyday lives of Catholics.

There’s a reason the room where a pope is robed in white is called the Room of Tears. 


The function — some would say dysfunction — of the Roman Catholic Church's curial government is one of the profound issues facing the new pope. The Curia is still a mainly Italian affair, composed of officials who are supposed to support and implement the pope's vision. Many men dedicate their lives to this work.

But there are many even within the church who believe the Curia is in dire need of reform. As Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Nigeria said recently to the Catholic News Service, "Jesus put the church in the hands of erring humans."

Pope Francis makes a private visit to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on March 14, 2013. (Osservatore Romano/Reuters)

The "Vatileaks" scandal, the handling of the catastrophic sexual abuse cases around the world, questions over corruption in the Institute for Works of Religion (the Vatican Bank) and rumours and reports of ego-driven infighting have brought the Curia under intense criticism.

There are surely some shudders in the Apostolic Palace as people contemplate the new boss. In the next few days, Pope Francis will face several major decisions, including who will be his secretary of state.

This important and powerful curial position is often referred to as the No. 2 job in the Vatican. Francis needs a "fixer." The new pope himself has little experience in the Curia and is known as more of a pastor than a manager. He may want to place a strong-willed reformer into the job.

Francis turned down many chances to work in Rome, preferring to stay in Argentina in a boots-on-the-ground role. He will need someone who knows where the shadows are and has the force of personality to fight rigid institutionalism.

In 2005, Vatican watchers expected the newly elected Benedict XVI would clean house. He had, after all, held a top job in the Curia and likely knew exactly where the problems were to be found.

Eight years later, Benedict is retiring to a monastery under the very windows of a Curia that is still seen by many as a problem rather than the solution to the problems of the church. Francis now takes up the challenge. He’s going to need a lot of help and time. 

The process will also need to be transparent and generate a more transparent curial culture if it's going to be effective.


The Catholic Church has lost a lot of its global punch. In the years of John Paul II, the Vatican was a major player. When the pope picked up the phone, presidents answered. A speech by the pope could put issues of social and economic justice on the global stage. John Paul II is even credited with helping to crush communism.

But Benedict was a very different kind of pope — much less the global superstar, much more the theologian. During his pontificate, the church lost much of its lustre on the world stage. His responsibility for this will be long debated by historians.

His successor must now try to reclaim the global moral high ground. Francis will have the media's attention for awhile. Being the first New World pope puts him in the spotlight; uniqueness drives headlines.

He'll now need to craft a message that sells in the secular world in order to have any real influence in international organizations like the United Nations or European Union. If he doesn’t, the Catholic Church will be sidelined in the international community.


Individual Catholics couldn't vote in the conclave, but they can vote on the church with their feet, and their hearts.

On paper, there are 1.2 billion Catholics around the globe, but many have fallen away from the faith. They don’t go to church, baptize their babies, get married or seek much moral guidance from the church.

Pope Francis walks in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore during a private visit in Rome on March 14, 2013. (Osservatore Romano/Reuters)

Whether because of the seemingly endless string of sexual scandals around the globe, the remoteness and opaqueness of the Vatican hierarchy, the contested role of women, issues of sexuality and morality or just a lack of relevancy in everyday life, the exodus of Catholics from the faith has the church spooked.

Reaching out to these secular Catholics is something the church calls the New Evangelization. As John Allen Jr. of The National Catholic Reporter writes, "In a nutshell, the 'New Evangelization' is about salesmanship. The idea is to move the Catholic product in the crowded lifestyle marketplace of the post-modern world."

Pope Francis faces a global crisis of faith, but his past experience puts him in a perfect position to tackle the situation. He's a pastoral pope, a man who takes public transit, lived in a simple apartment and washed the feet of the sick and poor.

He's already turned down several trappings of office, and will no doubt continue to break the rules in favour of a more humble and simple pontificate.  

Still, exactly how he’ll make the church’s morality and teachings relevant in the lives of an increasingly secularized population will be one of Francis’s greatest challenges.

There are even those who question if it’s still possible, or if the church's brand is already too tainted.

In Argentina, Francis encouraged priests to get out from behind the pulpit and amongst the people. He led the way with his own example. When leaving the "hotel" where he stayed before his election, he made sure he personally paid his bill. How he'll mobilize the church's priests and sisters to reconnect with Catholics has Rome abuzz.

But Pope Francis is orthodox in his doctrine. People looking for substantial changes on abortion, homosexuality or married clergy will likely be out of luck.

Practical problems

Given the size of the church, there is no end to the litany of regional challenges it faces: social and economic injustice, doctrinal issues, many very practical issues.

Francis must deal with the Vatican's financial affairs. A debate over the (non)-transparency — how money comes into and goes out of the church’s financial institutions — caused the Italian central bank to shut down the Vatican’s credit and debit transactions earlier this year. The Vatican downplayed the incident and a European financial watchdog said the church had made progress, but needed to do more.

In Africa, Indonesia and Syria, there have been violent physical attacks and continued religious suppression of Catholics as faiths and cultures come into conflict. Francis has to find ways to build bridges in particular with Islam.  

The church's clergy also continues its march towards old age. Even in Brazil and Mexico, home to two of the biggest Catholic populations on the planet, there is a serious shortfall in new priests, leaving many parishes without.

Work in progress

The Catholic Church is a work in progress and has been so for more than 2,000 years. In the 1960s, the Vatican II councils jettisoned the Latin mass and opened up a conversation. 

Many say that conversation has stalled and are looking to Pope Francis to restart it. The argument isn’t that the church is facing its greatest challenges. Its history is full of crises.

But Pope Francis is confronted with problems under the scrutiny and demands of a globalized media and the unforgiving and instantaneous presence of the internet — a platform where scandals, missteps, secrets and rumours, like the church, find their own continuity.