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Necessary reforms

Günther Birkenstock / cbMarch 14, 2013

Now that the white smoke has risen, attention turns to the challenges Pope Francis I will face. Critics say he must reform old-fashioned rules and attitudes in the Catholic Church and open up to the modern world.

Faithful cheer as white smoke rises from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel, indicating a new pope has been elected at the Vatican, March 13, 2013. White smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel and the bells of St. Peter's Basilica rang out on Wednesday, signaling that Roman Catholic cardinals had ended their conclave and elected a pope to succeed Benedict XVI. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION)
Papstwahl 2013 ReaktionenImage: Reuters

In Europe, the big topics for the Catholic Church right now are the progress made in the ecumenical movement, antiquated, strict sexual morals and more power and opportunities for women in the church. After all, women do most of the work in local congregations, yet they aren't allowed in most leadership positions in the church. Support for women in the priesthood is growing stronger and stronger.

Conservatism drives devotees away

A perennial and especially delicate issue is celibacy. More than 80 percent of the German population hope that the new pope will break with centuries of tradition and allow catholic priests to get married, according to a survey by German polling institute Forsa.

There is also discontentment with the way remarried divorcees are treated in the Catholic Church. A Catholic who ties the knot again after ending his or her first marriage is prohibited from participating in Holy Communion.

Hans Küng, a critical theologian from Tübingen, is convinced that the church's conservative stance needs to change. He believes that the church has to modernize its position on divorce, contraception and abortion to stop losing more and more devotees.

Abuse scandal has not been dealt with

The cases of abuse in Catholic schools and other facilites that were uncovered over the last years have also rocked the church. Many critics, one of them the Swiss pastoral theologian Leo Karrer, say that the scandal's background still has not been fully dealt with.

A priest in a church, holding a bible. The holy cross on a chain around his neck, his hands folded. (Photo: ANP XTRA ROOS KOOLE)
The cases of child abuse in Catholic institutions have not been adequately dealt with, critics sayImage: picture-alliance/ANP

Karrer also criticized the overly authoritative leadership style of the Church in Rome and has joined the chorus of the many Catholics who work in their local churches and often feel restricted by Rome.

More transparency and dialogue at the top

Ludwig Ring-Eifel, editor-in-chief of the German Catholic News Agency (KNA), thinks the new pope's most important task will be the restructuring of the Catholic Church's governing body, the Roman Curia. "In the last years of the papacy of Benedict XVI, it became obvious that the pope's decisions, be they theological or political, can't be implemented when the administration at the top doesn't work right. Furthermore, the pope has to give more positions to laymen, Ring-Eifel says: "He can't give all the important jobs to archbishops and monsignori."

Karl Jüsten, director of the Catholic Liaison Office in Berlin, thinks that the papal authorities would profit from implementing a more modern management style: "It would be good for the Curia to instate a cabinet, where the cardinals can communicate with each other, and not just with the pope."

European issues small compared to world hunger and AIDS

What the new pope should or should not do depends on who you ask. Expectations differ widely from one world region to the next. German media, for example, would like to see a conservative head of church, says Ring-Eifel. "It's ridiculous to assume the pope of a worldwide church takes the situation of Catholics in Cologne or Munich as a benchmark for the development of Catholics in Manila or Mexico City," according to the KNA editor-in-chief.

Thousands of people march during the Jesus Parade in downtown Sao Paulo (Photo: REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker)
Devoted Catholics can be found on all continents, here in Sao Paolo, BrazilImage: REUTERS

Theologist Karl Jüsten takes the argument a step further and says that, compared to humanity's big problems, the issues that are discussed in Europe seem rather mundane. "The pressing problems are poverty, hunger, AIDS and other diseases," says Jüsten. "Look at all the states crippled by civil war, where people fight just to survive. This is where the pope has to be really close."

Pope has to find answers for many

The Catholic faith is much stronger in South America than it is in most parts of the world. The continent is expecting the new pope for World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in July. It will be an important first outing in front of millions of believers. In Brazil, the church has to offer solutions to problems like drug trafficking, violence, poverty and corruption, and it has to deal with rising evangelical free churches and other religious groups.

African Catholics also expect a breath of fresh air and more support from the new pope. They have bonded with others to fight AIDS, perennial famines and a new economic "colonialism". Islamist hatred and aggression against Christians in Africa are the newest link in a chain of persecution of Christians worldwide.

Then pope Benedict XVI (L) shakes the hand of a young boy in Angola. (Photo: EPA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO)
Benedict on a visit to Angola in 2009. African Catholics expect the new pope to help them in the fight against AIDS, poverty and violence.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Asia is of high strategic importance to the Catholic Church as well. Former pope Benedict XVI did not visit Asia during his papacy, and there was repeatedly trouble with Beijing, because the Chinese government wanted total control over religion. Less than ten percent of Asians are Christian, but the majority of the world population lives in Asia. This presents a large challenge to a Church whose goal it is to spread the Gospel to the uninitiated.

The crisis of faith in the Western world, and the unclear relationship between the main church and the renegade, ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X are also among the daunting issues the new pope and Curia will have to face. A lot depends on whether the new pope is willing to break new ground.