By Nimal Fernando
Simon Peter’s latest successor is now in place. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis I, who had been the archbishop of Buenos Aires, follows 265 other pontiffs as the representative of Jesus Christ on Earth.
He will no doubt have to summon all his management skills to deal effectively with more than a few challenges before the Roman Catholic Church.
As the past year and more has made abundantly clear, Catholics worldwide have voiced their unease, if not displeasure, in the church’s handling of the sex abuse by clergy. Catholics in the United States, for instance, tend to view the scandal over sex abuse by clergy as the most pressing issue for their church today, as an early-March poll by the Pew Research Centre showed.
Asked what they thought was the Roman Catholic Church’s most important problem, 34 percent of U.S. Catholics mentioned sex abuse, paedophilia or some other reference to the scandal. Nine percent of the respondents also viewed dishonesty, low credibility and low trust, taken together, as another problem that needs to be addressed.
Some of the faithful in the U.S. and Europe have even expressed outrage that a handful of priests, clearly identified as paedophiles, had not been brought to book, but transferred to different parishes. Charges of a general ‘cover-up’ have even come uncomfortably close to Benedict XVI.
The outrage among some Catholics stems from what they view as the Vatican’s decision to put the church’s reputation ahead of disciplinary action against a few members of the clergy who had misused what is regarded as the ultimate position of trust.
As some media reports in the U.S. noted, victims of sexual abuse believe that the reckoning has barely begun. They are demanding not just a proper investigation, but also apologies, punishments and – in a few cases – cash. They view Benedict as having exemplified the secretive, cautious response that aggravated the misconduct.
Theologians as well as analysts in the U. S. and elsewhere, are pointing to the erosion of trust, and the concomitant loss of respect, as a mounting concern, especially in the developing world. It has been suggested that falling attendance at mass (even in mostly Catholic Italy, only 39 percent attend on a monthly basis) and in extreme cases, some of the faithful even turning their backs on the church, are indicative of a loss of credibility.
Not a good position for the church
An inescapable fact is that on Benedict’s watch, the church lost sway in Europe, the U.S. and even Latin America. The central bureaucracy in Rome, the Curia, fell more deeply into dysfunction. Catholic liberals, a few priests among them, are on record as saying that almost all of the church’s recent woes can be ascribed to the top-down decision-making which has marked the past two papacies.
This cannot be seen as a good position for the church to be in, given its goal of spreading Christianity worldwide, something the church has achieved with a wide margin of success so far. As demographic studies show, over the past century, the number of Catholics around the world has more than tripled, from an estimated 291 million to 1.2 billion – the world’s largest faith denomination.
And even as the world’s overall population also rose rapidly over the same period, Catholics have made up a remarkably stable share of all the global population. In 1910, a Pew Research study shows, Catholics comprised about half (48 percent) of all Christians and 17 percent of the world’s total population, according to historical estimates from the World Christian Database.
A century later, Catholics still comprise about half (50 percent) of Christians worldwide and 16 percent of the total global population. What has changed substantially over the past century is the geographic distribution of the world’s Catholics. In 1910, Europe was home to about two-thirds of all Catholics, and nearly nine-in-ten lived either in Europe (65 percent) or Latin America (24 percent). By 2010, by contrast, only about a quarter of all Catholics (24 percent) were in Europe. Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for the largest share (39 percent).
The election of the first Hispanic pope (also the first non-European in more than 1,200 years) is decidedly a nod to this demographic shift. Following in from this, it is safe to assume that the Vatican will have to look closely at the continuing Italian sway over papal elections (175 Italians have been elevated to the papacy). Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, with the share of self-identified Catholics in Brazil put at 65 per cent in 2010. Mexico, the country with the second-largest Catholic population in the world, was 85 percent Catholic in 2010.
Pope Francis might also have to deal with what has been viewed by other religious denominations and parts of the media, especially in the developing world, as an aggressive strategy of conversions. Some have not shied away from attributing coercion and material incentives for the rapid growth of Catholicism in sub-Saharan Africa, the Catholic population of which is put today at about 171 million (16 per cent), up from an estimated one million (less than 1 percent) in 1910.
Also, what is universally regarded as the Church’s greatest contribution globally – its charitable works – has not been immune to attacks by other denominations, especially in countries where Catholics are in a minority. The charge in this instance is that such charitable works, specifically among the poor and marginalised, are being used as a tool in conversions.
Among the other issues demanding Pope Francis’s attention, globally in general and specifically in the United States, is the loss of members as a result of religious switching (one-in-ten adults in the United States is a former Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2009 report, “Faith in Flux”); a feeling among large segments of the faithful that the Church is outdated; the shortage of priests; questions about the admission of women to the priesthod; the church’s stand on abortion and homosexuality; the challenge from evangelical protestantism in Latin America; persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Catholics and other Christians comprise religious minorities in many countries where they face discrimination, government interference, and in some instances, growing violence as they practice their faith. Many such cases in Syria, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and China have been highlighted by the media.
Given the onrush of social change and modernity globally, Pope Francis I might conclude that nothing short of a gentle, if decisive, makeover will suffice to sustain the Church’s vitality and purpose. To be sure, he’ll have over a billion-strong fan base rooting for him urging him on to prove that he could be, today, as big a fisherman as was Simon Peter in his day.
Nimal Fernando is a freelance writer in the United States.