Obviously, I wasn’t in charge of selecting the new pope, Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. If I’d been in charge of the College of Cardinals, the selection process would have looked completely different.
We all know that the Roman Catholic Church is enveloped in a galactic array of scandals. It is said that when people are in trouble they should look to their roots to find solutions. That sage advice should apply to cardinals as well. They could look back to the figure on whose teachings the church was founded and emulate him. Would Jesus Christ have allowed his followers to carry on with the pomp and circumstance the cardinals and other members of the church hierarchy employed? Methinks not.
The cardinals’ elaborate costumes and their luxurious quarters date back to the beginning of the first millennium, when the church was still largely controlled or heavily influenced by the Holy Roman Emperor. As Constantine had converted his empire from paganism to Christianity, so his successors controlled the early church’s leadership. In a power grab in the year 1059, church officials took advantage of the fact that Henry IV was only 6 when he became Holy Roman Emperor – and had no power. They wrested control of appointing the church’s most powerful leader from the secular realm and placed it in church hands.
In the 2,000-plus years since Christ lived, the church has changed from a group whose leaders and followers eschewed wealth and its trappings (remember Jesus tossing the money lenders and financiers out of the temple?) to a group that worshipped money in a figurative sense almost as much as they worshipped God.
I’m not suggesting the pope or the cardinals revert to wearing sackcloth. But the specter of a convention of mainly very white and very old men, adorned in silk robes and luxuriating in the Vatican’s high-priced real estate does not sit well. It sits particularly unwell at a time when the modern era has drawn back the cloak of secrecy that used to shield from public view such things as the massive priest pedophilia scandal. A shift to a less opulent lifestyle would serve the church hierarchy well at least from a public-relations perspective.
So, too, would some fast thinking on the issue of who qualifies to sit in the College of Cardinals, thereby to engage in the selection of a pope. The fact that the electors included the former archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, was a stinging slap across the face of the thousands who were sexually molested by priests when they were young. Mahony and an ex-priest are paying four men almost $10 million to settle allegations that they covered up child sex abuse by a priest.
I think of low-income workers who live just above the poverty level and nonetheless tithe each Sunday. I think of parents who entrusted their young sons to church choirs and Catholic schools decades ago, only to find out their children were raped by mentally unbalanced men of the cloth. Having those culpable in the scandal continue to take part in the college’s work – and to be granted the wealthy lifestyle normally afforded to CEOs and U.S. presidents – was stunningly insensitive.
The church would do better to swiftly ax corrupt members of its hierarchy and dial down their luxurious lifestyles. Leaders would not have to look far for examples. They’d just have to crack open the New Testament.
Bonnie Erbe, host of PBS’ “To the Point,” writes this weekly column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.