No other historical record is more honest about its heroes than the Bible. Time and time again, the Bible shows us the best and the worst of God’s chosen instruments. No concealing. No shame that God chooses the weak to confound the wise. (cf. 1 Cor 1:27)
The Bible heaps high praise on Noah as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time…(Gen 6: 9) Noah believed in God’s word and, as a result, he saved part of humanity from the Great Flood. However, after the Flood, Noah sinned. He drank too much wine and became drunk.
Abraham is called the “father of the faithful.” (cf. Rom 4:9-12, Heb 11:8-12, 17-19) Yet, he had his lapse of faith. To save his own skin, he told Abimelech, king of Gerar, that Sarah his wife was really his sister. And, when the king, enthralled by Sarah’s beauty, was ready to take her for his own wife, God had to intervene and, in a dream, warn Abimelech not to touch Abraham’s wife. (cf. Gen 20)
Without a doubt, Moses, who led Israel out of slavery and received from God the Ten Commandments, was the greatest leader and prophet of the Old Testament. But, not even Moses, whom God used so powerfully, was without sin. Not only did he kill an Egyptian for mistreating a Hebrew slave (cf. Ex 2), but, in the very events of the Exodus, he doubted God’s word. (cf. Nm 20)
Even Jesus’ chosen leaders failed and failed miserably. James and John were ambitious for positions of prestige. Judas betrayed him. Peter, the first disciple to confess Jesus as the Christ, was also the first to deny him after his arrest. And, in Jesus’ hour of suffering, all of the apostles fled and deserted him. (cf. Mk 14:50)
Why are the Scriptures so honest about God’s chosen leaders both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament? Why do the Scriptures record not only the deeds of faith and heroism, but the sins and failures? To remind us that God’s work is God’s work. He chooses leaders who share our common humanity. He stays with them and works with them, not approving their sins, but redeeming them with his grace and supporting them with his strength to accomplish his work.
Most recently, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has become the opportunity for many in the media to release one story after another detailing the alleged sins of the clergy, even at the highest level of the Church. Day after day, a new revelation of some hidden sin, some heinous abuse of power, some personal weakness. Ideally, we have every right to expect those in authority to be paradigms of virtue. But, in the real world, we recognize that even those committed to holiness do not always live holy lives. This is not an excuse for sin. Only a realistic understanding of the human condition.
At the end of the Nicene Creed, we say, “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The Church . . . is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy. This is because Christ, the Son of God…loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her; he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.” (n. 823)
Yet, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, “the Church already on this earth is signed with a sanctity which is real although imperfect.” ("Lumen Gentium," 48) This means that, in her members, there is not yet perfect holiness. There is sin. And sin “always has a name and a face: the name and face of those…who freely choose it.” (Pope John Paul II, "Message for World Day of Peace," 2005)
As faithful Catholics, we are neither overly romantic in our understanding of the Church founded by Jesus himself nor naively idealistic about our chosen leaders. Rather, we are soberly realistic about the Church we love. She is the gathering of the People of God. She embraces in her bosom flesh-and-blood individuals called to share in the holiness of Christ, but not yet perfected in love.
When the media uncover the real sins of Church leaders, we are disheartened. But there is no shock among those who understand the mystery of the Church, a divine institution with human members. No surprise among those who know their biblical history. Is God’s power no longer stronger than the sins of his chosen leaders?
However, when the media deliberately floods the news outlets with alleged reports and rumors of the sins of Church leaders at the very moment when we prepare to receive a new successor to Peter, there is disappointment. When some distort facts or use them to pursue their own agendas and stir up prejudice against the Church, this is nothing other than a smear campaign to discredit the authority of the Church and her chief shepherd to speak in the name of Christ on the issues confronting our age.
Reprinted with permission from The Beacon, official newspaper for the diocese of Paterson, N.J.
Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.