Opinion

Whether Church or State, Powerful Men Are Letting Us Down

From priests to Duncan Hunter to Trump himself, leaders need to get back to earth with the rest of us

From coverups to guilty pleas, it’s been a bad month for both our churches and our politics, Curtis writes. Above, sitting between Cardinal Timothy Dolan and wife Melania Trump, Donald Trump attends the annual white-tie Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in 2016. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — It is not a good time for those who want to believe — in their faith or in their government. No one expects any institution to be perfect, particularly those that are large and complicated. But why do so many have to be perfectly corrupt, spurring cynicism in those once so willing to give the benefit of the doubt?

There is the church I was raised in, one whose good works and ministries I loved while acknowledging flaws and grudgingly accepting the stern teachings of nuns and priests, and obeying the commandments as best I could. Pope Francis, a pontiff I admire for his common touch and common sense offered a message of understanding after a Pennsylvania grand jury report recounted horrific sins and crimes — the abuse of 1,000 minors by 300 priests over 70 years — covered up by Catholic Church leaders.

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” Francis wrote in a letter to all Catholics. “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”

But those beautiful words came late, and earned a measure of righteous scorn from those who have heard a similar message in the past with little action to follow as scandals unfolded all over the world. One can imagine few greater sins than robbing children of their innocence and their faith. It is a wound that never truly heals.

Is the church just another institution led by powerful men quick to condemn some sins while ignoring mortal ones in their midst?

Can anybody find us somebody to trust?

A devout member of my parish, one I would least expect to question church hierarchy, wondered why she was chided in confession for missing a few weekly Masses throughout the year when offending priests were transferred from church to church or allowed to retire in peace, something their victims often fail to find.

No faith is immune. In just one example, another icon, Paige Patterson, was removed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary this year after being accused of mishandling rape accusations.

The earthly representatives of the Lord’s teachings clearly have not lived up to the task and have much work to do to regain trust.

Yet many of these leaders who have not yet owned up to their part in actions have not hesitated to move their authority from the pulpit to politics, encouraging the faithful in the pews to follow their lead in the voting booth, comparing the importance of electing certain men and women to fulfilling God’s will or supplying simple litmus tests on issues life has shown to be complex.

Case by case by case

Is it heresy, hypocrisy or a supreme belief in their own not-so-divine judgment?

You can’t help but wonder when or if the line will ever be drawn as more politicians disappoint, sowing division and dissension instead of any sense of national unity, and looking out for themselves before the citizens and Constitution they swear an oath to defend. Leaders of church and state need to come down to earth with the rest of us.

That’s not meant to ignore the majority of faith and political leaders who step up for all the right reasons, and sacrifice more lucrative pursuits to choose a humbler vocation.

And I would be the last one to suggest a parallel between the scandals now dogging heads of institutions — corporate, political and spiritual. Each owns individual transgressions, and all transgressors need to be called to account in individual ways.

Consider the ex-members of the Trump team —  former campaign chair Paul Manafort and self-described fixer Michael Cohen — who this week were found or pleaded guilty to felonies, joining others on the wrong side of the Mueller and related investigations.

Watch: ‘President Did Nothing Wrong,’ Sanders Says

Or California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, who were accused in a federal indictment of allegedly using $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses, and falsely claiming that personal expenditures were for “wounded warriors.”

Or top Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who had to explain how a white nationalist was invited to a party at his home.

When those who say “trust us” dodge and duck moral leadership and civic responsibility, someone else has to pick up the slack, and not just in taxes not paid or agencies left underfunded and rudderless.

In matter spiritual and political, we are left to figure it out, with, perhaps, help from above, if that is your choice, or by looking to leaders who have yet to break their promises and our hearts.

Finding resilience and strength after disappointment isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But everyone wants something or someone to believe in.

That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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