WHILE Catholics around the world will be celebrating the appointment of Pope Francis, the pontiff takes on the role during one of the Church’s most challenging periods.
In Scotland alone, the faith is still reeling from the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien after he admitted that he was guilty of sexual misconduct involving priests throughout his career in the Roman Catholic Church, and the new Pope will be expected to lead any investigation into a scandal.
Closer to home, the Vatican has been hit by the serial leaking of documents that portrayed the Church’s central government as being corrupt and dysfunctional and in desperate need of reform and oversight. The new Pope will be expected to undertake what long-time Vatican watchers have described as a “huge and unenviable task”.
Another serious challenge to the Church’s authority is the scandal of child abuse by paedophile priests that has been uncovered in recent years.
Despite Pope Benedict XVI’s branding of the offences as “unspeakable crimes” and apologies to victims, the Vatican has been viewed as too slow and secretive in handling the matter.
Pope Francis I will have the tasks of unearthing those who committed offences, and pushing through his predecessor’s changes to safeguard children – in particular, having bishops sign up to child protection guidelines.
Critics of the Vatican, however, want the new Pope to act rather than simply issue apologies and demote bishops who concealed crimes.
The issue of equality legislation and the Catholic Church will also loom large for the pontiff.
In the UK and France, the Church has fought against plans to introduce gay marriage, while in the US, Catholic institutions are bound up in legal battles over sexual equality.
In the short term, the development of such legislation leaves the Church open to lawsuits and claims of discrimination.
In the long term it will effectively marginalise the Church and the Pope’s influence on public life – something the new leader will be under pressure to minimise.