The most valuable possession the church has, something so invaluable it could never be insured, is the trust of its church members and the larger society.
Sure, the church has buildings, steeples, choirs and bands, impressive ministries of compassion, historic prayers and beautiful liturgies. But everything the church has boils down to trust, the same as for every institution. Governments, political parties, salespersons, corporations, not-for-profit organizations and churches stand or fall on the issue of trust.
I reflect on the trust issue in the wake of yet another incident of breach of trust in the Catholic Church, this time precipitated by the publication of leaked internal Vatican documents from very high officials purporting to reveal cronyism, influence peddling, corruption and mismanagement. Some of the documents were personal letters written to Pope Benedict XVI.
The Vatican earlier this week arrested the pope’s personal butler, charging him with the theft of documents belonging to a head of state, a conviction that carries a maximum sentence of thirty years. The Italian press is having a field day with this disaster; one Italian church historian has observed that there is now “systemic disorder” in the church.
Of course, one cannot verify the authenticity of the documents or the motives of the perpetrator or even know if the arrested individual, if guilty, was acting alone or in collusion with other very high church officials. One could make a case that such an act is not worthy of reporting until more facts come out. And I hasten to insist that the Catholic Church — locally and worldwide — is involved in great good of incredible magnitude.
But what makes one church suffer makes us all suffer. And although the unflattering spotlight is on the Vatican this week, it has also shone harshly on many Protestant ministries, some independent ministries and others affiliated with national denominations. I was sickened last week to watch a youtube video of a North Carolina (Protestant) pastor ranting from the pulpit that we should place gay and lesbian people behind 10 foot high fences, drop them food from helicopters and let them die out. Every church has a stake in building or eroding the trust in every other church.
Power can be so tempting, whether exercised by an international church or in a one-room church building surrounded by fields. When any church stumbles and falls, it is an occasion for holy grief and repentance, the very same thing the church expects of its members. We’re all in this together.
Did the papal butler steal documents? The Vatican says it’s conducting a thorough investigation. But there’s a larger issue: Is a holy whistleblower protected from prosecution and will the church — if guilty — move to regain its trust by confession, repentance and restitution?
These difficult acts are the only ones by which the church can restore trust and demonstrate for insiders and outsiders that the church practices what it teaches.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.