The past century has been blessed with holy men in the papal office. It’s easy to get caught up in adoring them, for they have been strong role models and good shepherds of the faith. A pope, or any leader at any level, should be holy and selfless and compassionate. He should have loyalty only to Christ, to the truth, to caring for his people. He should resist his personal temptations and rise above petty distractions of the day.
But leaders are human. Even the ones with the best of intentions make mistakes and have their personal struggles. And not all are best intentioned. There are bad leaders. There are leaders that do the wrong thing and lead down the wrong path. But recently, I’ve realized that that’s ok. Not that I am alright with bad leadership and poor morals, but that the truth can withstand anything, or anyone.
There are some famously bad popes. John XV used the church finances as his family’s personal bank account. John XII reported rape pilgrims, stole church offerings, and prayed to the Roman gods. Alexander VI threw large orgies and promoted his children to power. Because of him, the name Borgia is immediately associated with hypocrisy, political schemes, and sexual immorality.
It would be very hard to look at the leader of the Church, see a man like that, and believe that the Church represented goodness and holiness. I understand why people turned away from the Church when the pedophilia scandals hit. How can such vile men represent God? How can God’s witness on earth house such evildoers? The Church is supposed to be better than corrupted world. Her leaders are supposed to be building up the kingdom of heaven, not building their own empires.
But I think there is hope in these bad leaders. The office is bigger than the man. He will serve a purpose whether he desires to or not. A lot of the nepotism and corruption led to reforms in the papacy. And even with bad men in power, the Word still spread. People still found God and worshiped him sincerely. The Church can flourish under good leadership, but she can withstand bad leadership too. There is waxing and waning, but she is eternal.
I think the fall of the Papal States has helped produce good popes. It does seem that when the Church has secular, political power, she draws more of those bad leaders. Men who want to use her for worldly gain and personal glory. A suffering Church produces humble leaders. Men who are willing to risk their lives for God. To me it becomes a dichotomy: end persecution and have influence on society but risk becoming a worldly power with corrupt politicians at the helm or suffer persecution and be belittled in society but have godly men lead us through the suffering?
I’m not going to be able to control how much power the Church welds. I’m not going to be able to control who is in charge. But I can speak out against injustice when I see it. And I can continue to place my trust in Christ and his Bride instead of mortal men.