Warts and All

Father Don Farnan

May 14

The late Catholic author and historian, Thomas Cahill, once said, “Just as banks can make people poor, hospitals make them sick, and schools make them ignorant, so can churches make people evil—and the history of our church is embarrassingly full of examples.”

A book club that I facilitate recently read and discussed David Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini.  It reveals the ugly underbelly of politics inside the Vatican, the sad and often hypocritical lives of many church leaders, and it illustrates why there is a seventy-year wait period after the death of a pope before opening his personal archives.  Those of us who view the church as a vessel of God’s grace that brings us to heaven’s glory can find it gut-wrenching to examine the church’s painful blemishes while continuing to love her.

For nearly thirty-seven years, Popes Pius XI and XII ruled the universal church (February 1922-October 1958) and contended with scathing characters like Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler and horrible global conditions of a world at war amidst fascism and nazism.  Kertzer’s account of interior struggles for power, ethnic and religious prejudices, inherent antisemitic sentiment, increasingly arrogant notions of infallibility, corrupt operations, and sinful behaviors, divulge some nasty warts of the church’s façade.  Exposure of tense and manipulative workings within ecclesial headquarters leaves us wanting assurance that, even though the world continues to face dark times and global chaos, church politics must never align with the politics of earthly leaders as it did through much of the twentieth century but, rather, express the politics of Christ.

Most of us can’t imagine the burdens put upon bishops and other church leaders who seek to represent God’s teachings.  Influenced by their own times, upbringing, formation, adult experiences, ecclesial preferences, political alliances, interpretations of Christ’s message, etc., they must act instinctively as crucial matters fall before them—often quickly—trusting that their actions will please God and advance His divine will.  Pope Pius XI, a loner who was off-putting even to his family and frightening even to those closest to him, and Pius XII, former ambassador in Germany who sympathized with many attitudes of Nazis, were secluded and protected in ways that could not occur today.  Saint Pope John Paul II dealt with his own global challenges in personal and private ways but, half a century beyond the Piuses, did it with much greater collaboration and transparency.  From Archbishop Romero to Cardinal Bernardin to Pope Francis, other church leaders have shown tremendous vulnerability in attempting to deal with political issues in open, honest, and loving ways.

Contending with such tough issues is difficult, especially for church leaders who are tasked to follow Jesus and face politics daily, knowing that it is what led to His execution.  We are all called to participate in politics though, thankfully, most of us do so much more quietly; we don’t have to make arduous decisions that impact others in matters of life and death.  Yet, we do impact those close to us, and sometimes our choices expose a side that is not appealing or attractive, that reveals the worst parts of us.  Despite our failings, those who love us continue to love us—warts and all.  Many of us can do the same for the church we love.

Though I certainly recommend Kertzer’s weighty account of a dark period in recent history—and my book club members agree that we are better for reading and discussing it—it offers a strong reminder that we are imperfect, the church is imperfect, her leaders are imperfect, and we should not judge other times according to today’s knowledge and understanding.  Though we might judge church leaders according to our own upbringing, formation, experience, and preferences, etc., we know that God alone is worthy to judge.  Because Christ gives us an example of being political and engaging the world, let’s trust that He will help us navigate our influence from darkness into light and from despair to hope.  And let’s pray for leaders who shoulder the burden of making tough choices that impact many, especially those who attempt to do so in God’s image and name.