Thursday, February 21, 2013

New Pope Faces Huge Challenges

Benedict XVI

The Roman Catholic Church has a lot to contemplate these days as its leaders survey its empty cathedrals and meet next week to choose a new leader.  Pope Benedict XVI, 85, has abruptly resigned, weighed down by age.  However, he will remain in the Vatican.  That way he will have diplomatic immunity against any possible charges brought by prosecutors in the on-going sexual abuse scandal that has scourged his and his predecessor’s papacies.

In case, the Church needs a reminder of the cowardly and embarrassing actions of its leaders, Cardinal Roger Mahony, who lost his post in California after Church documents showed his complicity in covering up the abuse there, will be eligible to vote for the new pope.  Other Church leaders have encouraged him not to attend the session, happily maintaining the consistent Church policy of covering up a problem rather than dealing with it.

Then, too, the Church has to cope with the souring number of “lapsed” Catholics and the overall decline in the faith.  The outgoing pope even held a conference in 2012 to discuss ways to carry the message to the millions who were born to Catholic parents and have stopped participating.  One archbishop estimated that 12 percent of all Catholics could now be considered to have lapsed.

A rare baptism in a Catholic church
While actual figures are sketchy, the numbers who once turned to the Church for rituals such as baptism, marriage and funerals have declined sharply in the United States and in Europe.

At the same time, the Church faces growing opposition to long-term social positions.  Surveys of lapsed Catholics find they object to the Church’s hard-line stances against abortion, homosexuality and artificial birth control.  A smaller group opposes the Church’s rigid opposition to women priests.

The end result is that, according to an October 2012 study, a large chunk of Americans no longer considered themselves affiliated with any religious organization.  The Pew Research Center, which regularly surveys Americans on religious topics, called that a “gradual softening of religious commitment.” 

It’s more than that:  in the last five years, the percent of religious unaffiliated grew from 38 to 49 percent while the number claiming an affiliation dropped from 60 percent to 50 percent in the same time period.

The survey found that 29 percent of all American adults “seldom or never” attend religious services.”

Catholics in the Caribbean
Meanwhile, the entire axis of the Church has changed.  According to the 2012 report from the Pew Research Center, most Catholics now live in Latin America and the Caribbean.  In 1910, in contrast, the vast majority were in Europe.

That means selecting yet another white European pope will disappoint a vast number of believers.

Then, too, the embarrassing leak of secret Vatican documents in 2012 has demonstrated that the Church is like any other large institution: a seething hotbed of ambitious and deceitful people competing for favors.  No Holy Ghost in sight.  If that didn’t make the aging pope quit, nothing would have.  

The Church is also beset by scientific and historical findings that have undercut its most cherished claims.  One solution has been for popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to publicly accept the accuracy of research involving evolution and the existence of the universe.  God wasn’t involved with either.  As a result, two basic props under the faith are gone, leaving little for a Father or Son to do.

At the same time, the Church has not found a new model for its own existence.  Its message has been shot through of holes without anyway to plug the leaks.

The same scientific shotgun has also pierced Protestant teachings as well. Evangelicals can try to muffle dissent and push creationist models into education, but they, too, must confront the reality of hard evidence.  Facts trump belief every time, leaving true believers to sputter about faith.

Idealized image of St. Malachy
Fewer people are buying that hokum these days.

The new pope will have to deal with all of these problems, but maybe not for long.  In the 12th century, Irish archbishop St. Malachy supposedly predicted all 112 popes, ending with Peter “when Rome, the seat of the Vatican, will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people.”

The next pope is supposed to be the 112th.  Benedict XVI is really the 265th, but that counts all the antipopes that populated Church history.  However, given what the new pope will face, he may want to read up on St. Malachy before accepting the job.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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