So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” (John 11:47-50)
The Catholic Church is facing yet another major sex abuse scandal, and the response of the church’s leadership has been profoundly disappointing. While many Catholic lay members, priests, and bishops have called for full disclosure, the Pope and his allies have circled the wagons. Indeed, the upper-level leadership of the Catholic Church has displayed far more interest in attacking those within the church calling for transparency than in addressing the issue of gross immorality.
Even though I am not a Catholic, my heart is broken over this crisis, for several reasons. First and foremost, any time children and young adults are exploited by those who should be protecting them, a profound evil has taken place. Second, I have many devout Catholic friends who are deeply grieved over this fresh wave of scandals, and who feel frustrated that the Pope is stonewalling. Third, I know that many people in the secular world essentially equate the Catholic Church with Christianity, and in their minds, anything that undermines the credibility of the church also discredits Christianity – period.
There is an underlying issue behind this particular scandal that has implications far beyond the parochial concerns of the Catholic Church, however. That issue is the perennial temptation to sacrifice principle for the sake of power. The survival instinct of institutions is so compelling that it seduces even the most sincerely intentioned into betraying the very principles the institution was founded to preserve. That is what is happening in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and it is what is happening all across our cultural landscape.
It is especially easy to see this taking place in the realm of politics. I vividly remember the outrage that many high-profile evangelicals (Robertson, Dobson, Falwell) expressed about Bill Clinton’s lack of character during the Lewinsky scandal in 1998. Less than twenty years later, many of those same outspoken critics of Clinton’s “character deficit” were full-throated supporters of Donald Trump. Why such a dramatic about-face? The answer is simple – power. Bill Clinton did not offer evangelicals political power, while Trump has. And so, with a few exceptions, the Robertsons/Dobsons/Falwells of the world have traded their birthright of principle for a pottage of power.
The same is true in reverse, of course. The vast majority of those on the Left, including many feminists, defended Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair (one went so far as to say she would happily service the president so long as he kept abortion legal) even though he clearly exploited his position to garner sexual favors from a young female staffer. But when Donald Trump ran for president, many on the left suddenly had a change of heart regarding Bill Clinton’s behavior.
The lack of principled conviction is not exactly a recent development in the realm of politics. But I do fear that we have seen the near-total erosion of truth-tellers in American politics. There are a few people in public life who are willing to critique their own party and those who share their own ideology (during the Clinton scandal the liberal law professor Jonathan Turley was a shining light of conviction, and during the Trump candidacy Baptist seminary president Al Mohler was unwavering in his criticisms). But the ranks of people like the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Howard Baker in politics are thinning rapidly.
We expect the unprincipled pursuit of power in the realm of politics. When it happens in the name of Christianity, the betrayal of truth for power is grotesque. Over the weekend, Pope Francis preached a homily in which he obliquely justified his refusal to answer questions or produce documents related to the sex abuse scandal by referring to Christ’s silence in the face of his accusers. This is a repugnant defense, and it should be an outrage to everyone who loves the name of Jesus. The Lord was not silent in the face of genuine inquiries into the possible abuse of children. To the contrary, he warned:
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:5-6)
To be sure, using the name of Christ to cloak the scandalous is not unique to Catholicism. It happens in evangelicalism all the time (for Exhibit A, check out Creflo Dollar), even in hundreds of small churches with two-bit dictators who act more like Diotrephes than disciples (see Third John 9-10). Power corrupts nowhere with a more corrosive effect on the soul than in churches.
This was the issue in John 11. The Jewish leadership faced the choice of power vs principle when they heard of Jesus’ miracles – especially the raising of Lazarus. When the Sanhedrin convened at the end of John 11, the Jewish court was in a dilemma. It could accept the truth of Jesus’ kingship, potentially incurring the wrath of Rome and the subsequent loss of power, or it could cover up the truth by eliminating Jesus, thus pacifying the Romans and preserving their own place of power. The Jewish leaders chose power.
Ironically, this power did not last very long. The Romans came and took away their place and nation just a few years later. Power corrupts, and what is corrupt does not survive. Institutions that sacrifice conviction for prosperity ultimately lose both.
When the psalmist asked who would be among those who would enjoy the presence of God, the answer came back: one who “who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4). The one who will dwell on God’s holy hill possesses an integrity that remains uncorrupted even when prosperity, status, or life itself may be the price. It’s the person who puts principle ahead of power, who loves God more than anything else, who will, in the end, be with the One they love forever. And eternity with God is worth any price.