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Papal resignation leaves Vatican with crosses to bear


As the Vatican enters a period of transition between Benedict XVI’s resignation and the nomination of a successor, FRANCE 24 looks at some of the crucial challenges the Catholic Church is facing.


Some 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world are waiting for a new spiritual leader following Benedict XVI’s formal resignation as pope on February 28. As 115 cardinals prepare to hold a conclave to elect the new leader of one of the oldest institutions in the world, FRANCE 24 takes a look at seven crucial issues facing the Vatican.

I - A ‘gay cabal’ within the Vatican bureaucracy?

The latest scandal to hit the Vatican involved claims of a network of senior clergymen who took part in gay sex parties and then faced blackmail. According to a report last week in the Italian daily La Repubblica, the widespread blackmail of this “gay lobby” factored heavily into Benedict XVI’s decision to resign.

The Vatican vehemently denied the allegations, slamming the “false and damaging” reports in the Italian press. But a former Dominican friar, now openly gay, said earlier this week that the issue of homosexuality was a “ticking time bomb” in the Catholic Church. “When you have this culture of secrecy and guilt and repression, you have conditions which foster the potential for blackmail and manipulation,” Mark Dowd told CNN.

II – Coming clean over the child sex scandals

Benedict XVI has been praised for condemning paedophilia more strongly than his predecessors, but critics claim that he hasn’t taken any serious steps to change the church’s culture of denial and cover-ups. The Vatican has yet to come clean regarding its response to past child sex crimes and the hierarchy’s role in silencing the victims.

At least one of the cardinals accused of covering up child sex abuse will take part in the conclave to elect the successor to Benedict XVI. The media spotlight in the United States is on Cardinal Roger Mahony, a former Los Angeles archbishop currently under judicial investigation for his alleged efforts to conceal abuses by priests from the secular authorities. A group called Catholics United gathered almost 10,000 signatures against Mahony’s participation in the next conclave.

III – ‘God’s bank’ mired in claims of money laundering

Times are tough for secretive financial institutions, and the Vatican Bank is no exception. Documents leaked earlier this year by Benedict XVI’s former butler claimed that the Vatican was far from being in line with international standards on preventing money laundering.

Despite the Holy See’s efforts to put the lid on any shady dealings, the US State Department added the Vatican to its 2012 list of countries that merited concern for their “vulnerability” to money laundering. Infighting at the Vatican’s financial arm reached the boiling point last May, when the head of the Vatican Bank was ousted. Moments after storming out of his last bank board meeting, Gotti Tedeschi told Reuters that he had “paid the price for [promoting] transparency”.

IV – Moral dogma increasingly out of line with societal trends

While several countries are considering the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the Roman Catholic Church is still reluctant to accept divorces between husband and wife – divorcees who marry again are excommunicated. Deeply religious Catholics can be torn between their faith and a marriage that is going nowhere.

The Vatican’s position on forbidding the use of birth control makes it seem out of touch to many Catholic youths and its blanket prohibition on condoms puts it at odds with disease-prevention efforts, particularly in developing countries.

V – A hierarchical institution, unfit for 21st-century evangelising

In addition to the difficulty it faces in countering European secularism, the Roman Catholic Church faces stiff competition in developing countries from religions that promote a more direct relationship between the faithful and God. Catholic leaders feel especially challenged by evangelical Protestant sects, which often seduce their converts with a simplified liturgy and the absence of Catholicism’s powerful hierarchy.

Ironically, it took a meeting of some 262 archbishops, bishops and senior clerics last October to identify that “excessive bureaucracy” was holding back Catholic conversions in the 21st century.

VI – Unresolved rift with hard-line Catholic fundamentalists

Benedict XVI spared no effort during his seven-year pontificate to reintegrate hard-line fundamentalist Catholic groups that disagreed with the modernising reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1962. But his attempt failed, and the most famous breakaway group, the Swiss-based Society of St. Pius X, remains the only formal schism of the last 50 years.

VII – A Eurocentric church in a globalising world

While Latin America has the largest concentration of Catholics in the world, Europeans – and especially Italians – are still in control of the Vatican’s leadership. Despite its decades-long decline in Church membership, Europe will still provide the bulk of the cardinals who will take part in the next conclave. Out of the 117 cardinals under the age of 80, 61 are from Europe (28 from Italy), 19 are from South America, 14 from North America, 11 from Africa and 12 are from Asia and the Pacific.


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