Just by reading the news, one has the impression that religious freedom is under threat today. From the carnage unleashed by the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to church/state tensions across the West, the picture seems to grow murkier and grimmer by the day.

Thankfully, we don’t have to remain at an anecdotal level. “Aid to the Church in Need,” a global Catholic charity based in Germany, puts out an annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world, and its new 2014 edition contains sobering results, indeed.

Released at a news conference in Rome this week, here are the report’s key findings:

  • Of 196 countries in the world, a total of 81, or 41 percent, are places where religious freedom is already restricted and things are getting worse.
  • Where the situation is changing, it’s almost always in the wrong direction. Positive movement on religious freedom was detected in only six nations since 2013, while deterioration was noted in 55.
  • Christians are by far the most persecuted minority in the world, due in part to their large numbers and far-flung geographic distribution. Muslims, however, are also experiencing severe hardships, often at the hands of other Muslims.
  • In the historically Christian West, religious freedom also is in decline, in part because of tensions with secular forces and in part because of rising alarm about religious extremism.

According to the authors, here’s the bottom line: “The necessity for all religious leaders to loudly proclaim their opposition to religiously-inspired violence, and to reaffirm their support for religious tolerance, is becoming ever more urgent.”

The most easily identifiable and influential religious leader on the planet is the pope, so the burning question raised by what the report calls a “rising tide” of religious intolerance becomes, “What can Francis do?”

Of course, no single person has the capacity to wave a magic wand and change the tides of history. That said, here are three possibilities currently within the pope’s grasp.

1. Francis could use his foreign trips to lay down gauntlets.

For instance, later this month he’ll make a three-day trip to Turkey in order to meet Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who has famously said his small Orthodox flock feels “crucified” by the Turkish government.

The most compelling symbol is the famed Halki Seminary, founded in 1844 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the historical center of Eastern Christianity. The seminary was once among the most important centers of learning in the Orthodox world, but it was closed in 1971 by a Turkish law banning private colleges.

In 2012, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly assured US President Barack Obama the seminary would be reopened, and land on the island where it sits was returned to Orthodox control. To date, however, the seminary remains closed, due in part to opposition from Islamist and ultra-nationalist factions.

Francis thus has the opportunity for a “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” moment while he’s in Turkey: “Mr. Erdoğan, reopen this seminary!”

2. Francis could stage a major inter-religious assembly in Assisi.

This could be along the lines of Pope John Paul II’s famed 1986 gathering at a time of Cold War tension between the United States and the Soviet Union to pray for peace. (John Paul held two other such gatherings in 1993 and 2002, and Benedict XVI staged one in 2011.)

This time the theme would be religious freedom, with the aim of not just producing an anemic appeal, but a specific action plan endorsed by the world’s most authoritative spiritual leaders.

For instance, Francis could engineer a commitment in Assisi from a coalition of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish charities to join forces to bring relief to all victims of religious persecution in the Middle East.

3. Francis could use the traditional tools of Christian worship and devotion to foster consciousness about persecuted believers.

For instance, the cover letter for this year’s “Aid to the Church in Need” report comes from Paul Bhatti, whose brother Shahbaz was assassinated in Pakistan in 2011 for opposing his country’s harsh anti-blasphemy laws. Just 42 at the time, Shahbaz Bhatti had been the lone Catholic in the national cabinet and an activist on behalf of religious minorities.

Of Bhatti’s Catholic piety, there can be no doubt. After his death, the only three items found on his small bedside table were a Bible, a rosary, and an image of the Virgin Mary. In an interview shortly before his death, he said, “I know Jesus Christ who sacrificed his life for others. I understand well the meaning of the cross. I am ready to give my life for my people.”

On March 31, 2011, the Catholic bishops of Pakistan wrote to then-Pope Benedict XVI to say they had unanimously approved a petition that Bhatti be enrolled “in the martyrology of the universal church,” meaning declared a saint.

Francis has already shown a penchant for dispensing with the usual protocol for naming saints, such as miracle requirements. Were he to do that for Bhatti immediately, victims of religious persecution everywhere would have a new patron.

These are merely fleeting ideas, but they suffice to make the key point. The pope’s capacity to change realities on the ground may be limited, but he’s not yet out of options.

Burke out, but English-speakers get a boost

In one of the most anti-climactic personnel moves in recent history, the Vatican yesterday officially confirmed that American Cardinal Raymond Burke has been removed as head of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s Supreme Court, and assigned as patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta, which functions as a Catholic charitable group.

Burke, of course, is a strong theological and liturgical conservative who emerged as the leader of the traditionalist camp at the recent Synod of Bishops on the family. His demotion will likely be seen in those circles as another sign of disfavor from Francis. It may also be seen as slightly punitive, given that whatever one makes of Burke’s political views, he’s long had a stellar reputation as a church lawyer.

Italian media had reported Burke’s impending exit as early as September, and the cardinal himself confirmed it in comments to reporters during the recent synod. As a result, the only question about the move was “when,” not “if,” and clearly Francis decided to pull the trigger sooner rather than later.

Going forward, perhaps the key question about Burke’s removal is how he’ll settle into his new role.

Will the 66-year-old go quietly, deciding to step out of the public spotlight? Or will he decide that since he no longer has any real Vatican responsibilities, he’s free to speak his mind even more forcefully — hitting the lecture circuit, writing essays, giving media interviews, and in general emerging as the face and voice of what might be called the conservative “loyal opposition” to Francis?

The old wisdom holds, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Though “enemy” may not be quite the best word to describe the relationship between Burke and the pope, Francis has clearly opted to go a different direction, in this case sending Burke into a sort of ecclesiastical exile.

It remains to be seen whether, from the pope’s point of view, the transfer simply solves one problem while creating another.

As a footnote, with Burke’s departure, there is now no American heading any significant decision-making Vatican department. Traditionally, at least one American is asked to fill such a role, so from this point forward, speculation will likely mount as to which American prelate may be summoned to Rome to take up a Vatican post.

Given Burke’s profile as a lightning rod, however, there’s a risk that the real surprise in Saturday’s personnel moves may get lost in the shuffle: The appointment of English Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher as the Vatican’s new foreign minister.

In effect, Francis executed a game of musical chairs: Burke’s out at the Signatura, to be replaced by French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, up to now his Secretary for Relations with States; and Gallagher rotates into Mamberti’s job.

The choice of Gallagher is significant for three reasons.

First, the foreign minister’s position is probably the Vatican’s most important diplomatic job, in terms of the day-to-day work of trying to advance its agenda.

The Secretary of State is formally the pope’s top diplomat, but that role comes with many other responsibilities, and the Secretary for Relations with States ends up doing much of the heavy lifting.

Traditionally, Vatican diplomacy has been dominated by Europeans, especially Italians. (Since 1953, the job has been held by five Italians and two Frenchmen.) This is the first time an Englishman has held the position, and thus can be seen as another move by Francis in the direction of internationalizing the key leadership positions in Rome.

Second, the appointment of the 60-year-old Gallagher also augments the emergence of English as the default second working language of the Vatican.

Already, Francis has entrusted his vaunted financial reform to a largely English-speaking power structure under Australian Cardinal George Pell, head of the powerful new Secretariat for the Economy, where by rule English sits alongside Italian as the official language of the office. Many of the Vatican’s financial councils and boards, such as a Vatican bank board and the board for the Vatican’s anti-money laundering agency, are disproportionately populated with English-speakers.

At the moment, the all-important role of “assessor” in the Secretariat of State, basically the No. 3 position overseeing day-to-day Vatican operations in a multitude of areas, is held by an American, Monsignor Peter Wells. Now with the appointment of Gallagher, two of the three most important Vatican jobs under the Secretary of State are held by native English-speakers.

All this is mildly ironic, given that Francis is notoriously uncomfortable in English, preferring to speak Spanish and Italian. Yet perhaps it’s precisely because he realizes his own limits in the language, and his lack of familiarity with the regions of the world where it’s spoken, that’s led him to beef up the Anglophone cohort on his team.

Third, Gallagher is arguably the first-ever Secretary for Relations with States who brings a keen personal familiarity with the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals to the role.

Gallagher arrived as the papal ambassador to Australia in 2012, at a time when intense media attention and various parliamentary investigations were directed at the legacy of child abuse and exploitation in various Church-run institutions.

“I expected a very enjoyable, stimulating, challenging mission,” he said in a recent interview, “but one that was going to be overshadowed by the scandals of sexual abuse and the Royal Commission, and other inquiries like the Newcastle and Victorian parliamentary inquiries, and that has proven to be the case.”

In the past, senior Vatican diplomats in Rome were sometimes seen as lethargic or tone-deaf in responding to the abuse scandals, often because they lacked any personal experience of the regions of the world where the problem has been the most acute.

When a wave of scandals broke out in Europe in 2010, for instance, former Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano stirred controversy when he referred to the complaints of abuse victims as “petty gossip” during remarks at Pope Benedict’s Easter Mass.

In Gallagher, by way of contrast, Pope Francis now has another senior official in his administration who can be expected to bring sensitivity to the need for reform.

The normalization of retired popes

When he stepped down in February 2013, Benedict XVI vowed to remain “hidden from the world,” and for the most part he’s been a man of his word. Francis, however, has encouraged his predecessor to “go out and participate in the life of the Church,” and recently he’s done just that in two different ways.

On Oct. 21, Benedict sent a message to the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, the primary residence for seminarians from the developing world, which named a lecture hall in his honor. The text was read by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s longtime personal aide and the Prefect of the Papal Household.

The message was vintage Benedict, centering on why dialogue with other religions can never replace proclamation of the Christian gospel and the effort to make converts. He warned if that were to happen, it would mean “the question of truth … is placed within a parentheses” which would be “lethal to faith.”

At the same time, Benedict said that confidence in the Christian message does not meaning turning a blind eye to Christians’ shortcomings.

“Every religion, to remain on the side of what is right, must also be critical of religion,” Benedict wrote. “The Christian faith again and again must develop such a critical power even with respect to its own religious history.”

His bottom line, however, was a clear endorsement of missionary efforts.

“The task of communicating the Gospel to others remains a reasonable one,” he said, adding that there is an even more simple justification for it: “Love demands to be communicated.”

Another recent message from Benedict was directed to the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England, which was launched in 2011 for former Anglicans who wanted to become Catholic. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of a 2009 ruling from Benedict paving the way for such structures.

Benedict wrote in German, saying that “my English would not quite suffice.” He was responding to a letter sent to him by Nicolas Ollivant, who heads a charity set up to support the group for former Anglicans.

“Your thanks for the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham has greatly moved me, and I ask you to convey my thanks to all its members,” Benedict wrote.

“Naturally, I am particularly glad that the former Bavarian Chapel has now become your Ordinariate’s church, and serves such an important role in the whole Church of God. It has been a long time since I have heard news of this holy place, and it was therefore with all the more interest and gratitude that I read the description with which you accompanied your letter.”

The text of the message was released by Vatican Radio.

Debate over how to balance dialogue with other religions against missionary work has been boiling in Catholicism for a long time, lending clear political relevance to Benedict’s message to the Urban University. Even his brief note to Ollivant might be said to have political subtext, since the creation of those structures five years was criticized by some as a threat to ecumenical relations with Anglicanism.

Totally aside from any policy implications, however, the fact that both texts became public without any real clamor or fanfare is significant in itself — to wit, it’s another milestone in the “normalization” of having a retired pope.

When Benedict first announced his intention to retire, there was fevered speculation that having two living popes might be a prescription for schism. At a minimum, some observers felt that Benedict would be a rallying point for opposition to the new pontiff.

His vows to remain silent and to stay out of the spotlight were Benedict’s ways of diffusing that concern, and so far he’s refused to be enlisted as the chaplain to any anti-Francis resistance.

By now, however, it’s abundantly clear who’s in charge in Rome, and there’s seemingly less perceived risk in Benedict speaking his mind. He’s only 87, and despite increasing frailty and fatigue, people who have seen him recently report that all the lights are definitely still on upstairs. Going forward, we may see and hear from Benedict more regularly.

The less of a fracas that causes, the easier it will be for future popes to contemplate resignation without worrying about somehow harming the Church they were called to lead.