02/24/2013 02:34 am ET Updated Apr 25, 2013

The Scandal of Catholicism and the Lesson to Learn From It

Recent reports by Italian media are heaping fuel onto the fire of rumors raging around the scandal-laden Vatican bureaucracy. According to La Repubblica, Pope Benedict's recent and shocking resignation stemmed in part from his frustrations over entrenched corruption and the wide-ranging influence of a network of gay Vatican officials operating within the hierarchy. The news comes at a time of transition for the institution, whose powerful College of Cardinals is preparing to meet soon in a secret conclave to elect the next pope.

The details of the story from La Repubblica are vague yet intriguing. According to undisclosed sources, a recent commission report on the Vatileaks scandal read only by the pope concluded that high-ranking church officials were being blackmailed by those with whom they had "ties of worldly nature." Though La Repubblica's description of these relationships is unclear, the article alludes to transgressions against the Biblical commandments "Non fornicare, non rubare" -- "thou shalt not commit adultery" and "thou shalt not steal."

Whether La Repubblica's report is true or false remains to be seen. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone -- himself a possible, though controversial, candidate for the papacy -- has strongly denied the story, deploring the accusations as groundless media attempts to smear Vatican officials and improperly influence the papal conclave. Whatever the truth of La Repubblica's reporting, however, there is no question that this account of Vatican corruption is an explosive topic in the media, increasing the scrutiny of an institution already mired in rumors of conspiracy and vice. The story titillates and incorporates elements of the best harlequin novels -- sex, power, secrecy, hypocrisy, greed.

Some Catholics may come to the defense of the institutional church, claiming that the media is inherently biased against the faith. In opposition to a hostile world these Catholics defend the current pope as an innocent, if naïve, defender of Christianity and the Vatican as a God-ordained, if human, organization unwaveringly following its founder, Jesus Christ.

As a Roman Catholic, I don't deny the church's claims to be a guardian of Christian belief. The institutional hierarchy plays an important role defining and sharing the faith with the world. As a realist, however, I also recognize that the church is characteristically human. Scandal has been a part of the Catholic Church from its start. Peter, the first pope, publicly denied Christ three times, renouncing the savior in his hour of darkest need. Later popes didn't fare much better. As many authors have pointed out, the Roman Church has throughout time been a source of sin and scandal for the faithful. Dante's Inferno famously portrays Hell as a place populated with pontiffs eternally damned for their offenses. More recently, the sex abuse scandal has rocked the world by uncovering the depths of depravity within the heart of the church. The Vatileaks scandal continues to reveal corruption at the center of the papal household and an ecclesial administration often far more concerned with personal gain and power than charity and service. The church seems a hypocrite. Though it preaches holiness, it lives in sin. Though it claims access to divine truths, it wallows in wanton debauchery.

How, then, is the scandalized Christian to respond to a church so clearly comprised of the vilest sinners? What should our reactions be to the rumors of sex and greed and lies and power-mongering and cover-ups? First, I suggest, we shouldn't be surprised. As experience has shown and Christian faith has taught, people are sinners and make mistakes. The world is a broken, messed up place, and no one -- not even the pope himself -- is exempt from sin's effects. As the scriptures make clear, every human being has fallen short of God's purposes. We are all in this mess of a world together and no one is innocent. To pretend that the leaders of the institutional church are somehow different than the rest of us is to deny Christian claims that sin is universal and its effects are pervasive.

It is for this reason, however, that Christian faith proclaims God's mercy and free gift of salvation. In the midst of human brokenness only God's love can restore human nature and only divine grace can fix the bad condition we share. Wrongdoing in our lives and in the church reveals to us how greatly in need of the Christian Gospel we are. It is because we are all touched by and contribute to the fallen state of things -- because it penetrates our souls and reaches into the deepest places of our collective institutions -- that we need someone to come rescue us from our self-initiated destruction. Christian faith claims that this savior was Jesus Christ, and that he made a way to right relationship with God and the world through his life on earth, death on the cross, and triumph through the resurrection. The Catholic Church knows the hope for salvation is necessary precisely we have known the terrible effects of our painful state.

During Lent, Christians take time in preparation for Easter to consider human nature and the condition of sin. We realize that our actions have betrayed a world that God intended for our best. Our relationships with each other, God, ourselves, and the world are disordered and distressing. We do not love as we should love, and we fail time and time again to contribute to God's good purposes on earth. For this reason, during Lent church sanctuaries and priestly vestments are bedecked in purple, a sign recognizing collective sin and confessing that the institutions and leaders of faith are themselves part of the problem. As we prepare for the celebration of Easter, Christians would do well to remember that belief in God's triumph over sin presupposes the constant presence of a dark, wounded nature within and around us. Scandals at the Vatican remind us that the faith in redemption we share is a message which we and the world need to hear.