Shortly after my column on Pope Francis’s latest appointment of new cardinals went to press (“Cardinal Virtues” June 13, 2017), I learned that a scandal had broken out concerning one of them. Cardinal-elect Jean Zerbo of Mali was accused by two investigative journalists of embezzling five million euros and hiding the money in a Swiss bank account. He and representatives of his diocese denied the charges in a clumsy, disorganized, and blustering manner.
When I read about this, I immediately assumed he was guilty.
I noted my gut reaction with chagrin, but there it was. So pervasive has clerical scandal been in my lifetime, including cases of mismanagement of church funds, it was only too easy to believe him guilty. Easier, in fact, than to imagine he was innocent. And I had just finished praising these cardinals as men of integrity who exhibited virtue! I felt cheated, taken in. I had trusted too much in the glowing reports I had read. I ought to have been more cynical.
Reactions such as this to news of scandal in the Church are, I believe, not uncommon. And a spiritual toll is taken by this sort of inner response. In the aggregate, feelings of being cheated and taken in by our own leaders can make us more defensive and less generous.
It is part of the total harm caused by scandal in the Church—particularly the sex abuse scandal, but other scandals as well. The cost of scandal cannot be measured only in the number of dioceses driven into bankruptcy, or the number of lawsuits taken to court, or the price of compensation to victims, or even the number of individuals and families and institutions directly harmed. The cost is found also, somewhat more intangibly yet in a real way, in the shifting of the inner pendulum of so many Catholics from trust to skepticism, from a presumption of innocence to a presumption of guilt.
I am not talking here about the loss of naïve optimism, or the experience of taking clergy down off the pedestal. Such things are part of growing up. If we take our theology seriously, we must acknowledge that sin is real and human beings fail us. The Church has always included both saints and sinners. Indeed no one among us is sinless. What I think has been happening, however, is different from a loss of naïveté or growth in a mature acceptance of human failings.
Something good in our souls is being eroded whenever, in place of fairness, we take refuge in cynicism. This is one of the less-admitted costs of scandal. Even with all the good we have known from, yes, virtuous people in the Church, we cannot forget the ugliness of betrayal displayed in clerical crimes and cover-ups. It has been burned into our memory and left us scarred.
The natural human reaction is to protect ourselves from those who could do us harm. And so we withdraw—we withhold our trust, we withhold our money from the collection plate, and perhaps our bodies from the pews. This reaction has been provoked by so much truly bad news in recent years that I think it has moved us collectively to a new place. For some, it has moved them straight out of the body corporate. For those who stay, it has given us harder hearts.