After recent public accusations of sexual misconduct with seminarians, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland not only resigned as archbishop but also announced that he would not attend the conclave to elect the next pope.

I wish some of the other Cardinals would give up the privileges of their office and refrain from attending the conclave. Cardinal Mahony offers a good example. The most generous thing we can say for his work as archbishop of Los Angeles is that it involved egregious errors of judgment. I’d like to be charitable, but I’m inclined to think much worse. The same holds for Cardinal Danneels of Belgium.

Cardinal O’Brien isn’t the only precedent. Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was historic, and it was not prompted by any accusations of misdeeds and misconduct. Citing his advanced age, he decided that in important ways he was becoming unable to properly discharge his responsibilities as chief pastor of the Catholic Church. He thought  it was in the best interests of the Church for him to step aside, giving up his office.

In Benedict, a good and holy man whose long service to the Church is widely admired gave up the privileges of his office, and he did so in accord with his judgment about how best to serve the Church. How much more so should cardinals whose failures have brought shame on the Church do the same?

This is not an argument that the Church should be run by spotless saints. I have little doubt that cardinals must rely on the grace of God. When it comes to the hierarchy, it takes a fair bit of inner push to climb the greasy pole, which only too easily blooms into sins of pride and more. Yet God can use the twisted timber of our fallen humanity to serve his supernatural purposes. That said, it doesn’t take a wild spiritual imagination to see that it would be a good witness for our age if a few of the Church’s princes accepted the fact that the best service they could provide to the Church is to acknowledge the damage they’ve done by staying home.

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