One day in 1970 I sat in the White House executive dining room with a senior member of President Richard Nixon's inner circle, who offered me a job in the political liaison office.
As much as I wanted a White House position I blurted, "But I really don't have much political experience."
The wily aide, a man from the Bible Belt like me, answered with a sting of irony: "How long have you been a Baptist preacher?"
The barb drew some mental and emotional blood. How tragic when people who should be regarded as the ministers of Christ have given reason for others to smirk at the political nature of their positions and institutions.
That brings us to Pope Francis and the present tempests in the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy. A Pennsylvania grand jury investigation spanning two years alleges that three-hundred "predator priests" sexually abused hundreds of people—including children—for decades, while church leaders knew about the behavior but did not report it.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Vatican ambassador to the United States, intensifies the swirl by revealing that in 2013 he reported to Pope Francis that there were claims of sexual abuse by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, but the Pope, says Vigano, ignored him, and McCarrick continued in office for another five years.
In an open letter issued August 25, Vigano wrote: "We must have the courage to tear down the culture of secrecy and publicly confess the truths we have kept hidden." He called on Pope Francis to resign.
The great danger in moments like this is the vulnerability of institutional leaders to being drawn into the political mindset. The senior aide at the White House with whom I lunched that day in 1970 was right: politics is politics in all corporate and institutional structures. The strategic aims are always the same, whether in the church or White House:
- Protect the institution and its power-holders at all costs.
- Spin the news as craftily as possible.
- Cover up by lavishing on gobs of platitude.
- Divert attention elsewhere.
- Ignore the issue and the distracted public will forget.
Pope Francis could learn much from the Watergate debacle. Nixon told an aide that "the people forget in six weeks." Nixon chose the political route and it destroyed his presidency.
Though it has not been widely reported there were people in the Nixon White House—especially on the junior level—who wrote memoranda to the President calling on him to go on national television, denounce the dirty tricks associated with the Watergate scandal, and tell the American people he personally was taking charge of the investigation until every speck of scandal was removed from his campaign organization and the White House itself.
The memoranda apparently never got to Nixon's desk because his gatekeepers wanted to push the President into the political strategy: protect their hold on the presidency and their own power at all costs, spin, cover-up, and divert. In fact, it was the cover-up itself, and Nixon's part in it, that forced his unprecedented resignation.
Archbishop Vigano seems to believe that the Pope has been drawn into a cover-up like the President decades before. Thus Vigano calls for Francis' resignation.
No doubt there are Catholics who would say this controversy is none of evangelicals' business. Yet many people outside Christianity conflate all churches as the same. Thus if one part of the body of Christ is besmirched, the witness of the whole church is blemished.
"Vicar" literally means to be deputized as a representative or agent. The "vicar" is a stand-in for the individual he or she represents. Popes are called the "Vicar of Christ," yet non-Catholics would also claim a certain type of "vicarage," not only for ordained clergy, but for all believers. We are all "ambassadors" for Christ, wrote Paul. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
To bear the title "Vicar of Christ" and wear what Catholics believe to be the crown of Saint Peter is a weighty load. When young Queen Elizabeth gave her first speech to Parliament, which required that she wear the hefty royal crown, she had to learn the trick of looking at her manuscript without bending her head to look down lest the mighty bejeweled load snap her neck.
Surely the crown of the Vicar of Christ, though not material, is far weightier than that of an early ruler.
There is also a lesson here for evangelicals who go before the throne of Trump: they must not be overwhelmed by the Oval Office mystique and forget who they are. Those summoned to the president's court must remember their "vicarage," and go as "vicars" of Christ and His Kingdom.
Pope Francis must lead in the present crisis in the interests of Christ and His Kingdom, not the interests of the institution and its hierarchy. That's when it all goes political, and one regarded by a billion people as Christ's prime representative on earth is seen as just another politician.
God doesn't need His ministers protecting the ponderous edifices of religion. God can take care of the church. Let us who serve take care of the business of the Kingdom.
Thus I would say to Pope Francis: Sir, don't approach the scandals in the church as a politician, but as a man seeking to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in the fallen world.