4 Major Challenges a New Pope Will Face

PHOTO: Postcards of Pope Benedict XVI, bottom, and late Pope John Paul II, are displayed outside a kiosk with St. Peters Basilica in the background, at the Vatican, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013.

Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo

Now that Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation, the web is awash with discussion of possible replacements. Interest seems to be high among even gambling agencies in Europe , which are already taking bets on who will be elected as the next pope in March.

Why is this such a popular guessing game? Well, there are several reasons.

Roman Catholicism reportedly has more than one billion followers worldwide, and churches spread around most of the globe. The type of messages that a new pope delivers on questions like homosexuality, or the use of contraceptives, matters on some level to this giant group of people. The new pope's pronouncement on such matters may push some away from the Catholic Church and draw others in. His decision's could energize believers, affect social behaviors, or alienate people from the church that they grew up in.

Segments of the Catholic church also run universities, hospitals, shelters for migrants and even banks, that can be affected at some level, by the way in which the new pope administers the resources of this giant organization.

Still, any person that takes on this enormous task, will first have to address some major challenges. Here are four that are sure to come up.

1. Keeping the Faithful

Over the past four decades, the size of the Catholic Church has declined noticeably in several countries that were once mostly catholic, with people choosing to move to other religions or simply to follow no religion whatsoever.

Religion expert Elio Masferrer, argues that this decline in influence arises partly because of the Catholic Church's refusal to revise its stance on social issues like divorce, the use of contraceptives or a more active role for women in the Church.

"They are predicating ideas that no longer go with modern needs," argued Masferrer who teaches at Mexico´s National Institute for Anthropology and History. He added that Catholic Church could learn a lesson from protestant groups that have grown in numbers, and have been more flexible on issues like divorce.

"Some church leaders argue that changing doctrine is to succumb to moral relativism," Masferrer said. "But protestant churches are growing and they are not relativists. They are conservative, but also have learnt how to adapt themselves to the situations presented by modern life."

2. Recruiting More Priests

Another problem that has beset the church in recent years is a global shortage of priests.

According to the Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate, a think tank affiliated with Georgetown University, says there were 419,000 priests around the world in 1970, but only 412,000 in 2010. In the same period the number of Catholics around the world almost doubled thanks to population growth, going from 653 million Catholics to more than one billion.

Priest shortages make it harder for the faithful to receive sacraments like first communions or confirmations. They can also alienate believers as attention in churches becomes less personalized.

Some religious experts contend that the church could increase interest in the priesthood by allowing priests to marry and by lifting strict rules on celibacy. Back in 2005, when Benedict XVI became Pope, several religion commentators urged Benedict to consider lifting the celibacy rules for priests. Benedict did not make a move on this matter so the celibacy issue could be something for the next pope to consider.

3. Being Relevant

It's fair to say that once upon a time the pope was once a kingmaker and a broker of treaties between Europeans states. Much of this influence has been lost. Over the past four decades the act of being religious has decreased in Europe as a whole. In 2009, for example, 50 percent of UK residents said that they had "no religion," according to a government survey. The Economist also reports that Church attendance has been declining across Catholic countries in Europe over the past decade, and in 2009 town hall civil weddings became more common than Catholic weddings in Spain.

So while becoming a kingmaker again is not really in the cards, there are still key ways a new pope will need to influence. Religion expert Elio Masferrer argues that in order to be a dynamic organization that is in tune with the modern needs of people, the Church must try to show greater leadership in social issues like poverty, the AIDS crisis, or the rights of immigrants.

"The faithful are not going to invest their time, in something that is sterile and is separated from reality," Masferrer said. "The church must find ways to be relevant in society."

4. Addressing Past and Present Scandals

The sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have tainted the legacies of both John Paul and Benedict. Neither has truly addressed these problems, and they continue to be a damning situation for the church and for all those impacted by it.

In 2011, a group of sex abuse victims went as far as to call for the Pope to be tried for crimes against humanity at the international criminal court for allegedly covering up pleas of abuse. While it did not materialize into something, it was but another example of how the church is viewed by more and more people.

Masferrer says that the Catholic Church will have to tackle sexual scandals that have affected its reputation and credibility in several developed countries. To do as the last two popes have done would be a step backwards.

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