The Character Crisis Comes to Rome

Pope Francis attends a service inside St Mary’s Pro Cathedral during his visit to Dublin, Ireland, August 25, 2018. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)
The more important the position, the more important the character of the person who holds it.

If a person becomes more powerful, does his character matter less? Or more? Increasingly, it seems, the answer from partisans is resounding and unmistakeable.

It’s less. It’s so much less that it’s doubtful character matters at all.

You think I’m talking about Donald Trump, don’t you? You think I’m talking about the disturbing tendency of Trumpists to shrug aside his infidelities, his ignorance, and his outright mendacity, for the sake of policy victories and good judges, or to simply beat the Left. You think I’m talking about the irritating tendency to care more about who is making claims against Trump than the truth of the claims themselves. After all, if Donald Trump loses, the “deep state” wins, and the deep state simply cannot be permitted to prevail.

For more than two years now, progressives have been screaming to conservatives that the truth matters. Character matters. You cannot — must not — turn a blind eye to real wrongdoing, even when the stakes seem high. In other words, after selling out to protect Bill Clinton in 1998, the progressive movement has reformed. It understands that character matters and some values (our “norms”) transcend politics.

Or maybe their movement hasn’t reformed at all. Maybe partisans haven’t changed. Raise the stakes enough, and character once again matters less than the cause.

Just ask the progressive partisans of Pope Francis. This week, we’ve witnessed a remarkable turn of events. A senior Vatican official — a member of a rival Church faction — has written a letter accusing the pope of ignoring claims of sex abuse against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The pope has not denied the allegations. In fact, he’s refused to address the allegations at all. It’s a claim that cries out for a full and complete investigation, and if the allegations are proven true, then it demands a meaningful consequence.

But don’t tell that to the New York Times. Don’t tell that to the pope’s defenders. They’ve turned to the old playbook. Demonize the accusers. Question their good faith. Point out the good that the pope is doing. Read, for example, this remarkable paragraph in a Times article entitled “Vatican Power Struggle Bursts Into Open as Conservatives Pounce”:

With the letter — released in the middle of the pope’s visit to Ireland — an ideologically motivated opposition has weaponized the church’s sex abuse crisis to threaten not only Francis’ agenda but his entire papacy. At the very least, it has returned the issue of homosexuality in the Roman Catholic Church, which many conservatives are convinced lies behind the abuse crisis, to the center of debate.

Wait. What? To put this in perspective, can you imagine the Times writing: “An ideologically motivated opposition has weaponized Donald Trump’s affairs to threaten not only Trump’s agenda but his entire presidency”? The Times is engaging in Breitbart-level misdirection.

And it’s not “just” the most important newspaper in the world indulging in this kind of spin. Take the astounding NBC News interview of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. After saying that the news media should press Francis’s accuser for information (fair enough), Cupich says this:

But for the Holy Father, I think to get into each and every one of those aspects, in some way is inappropriate and secondly, the pope has a bigger agenda. He’s gotta get on with other things of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.

Is that the progressive Christian version of “But Gorsuch”? But the environment. But immigration.

Catholic theologian Massimo Faggioli even went so far as to invoke the alt-right in defense of the pope. No, really:

And, let’s keep in mind, these classic Clinton- and Trump-style defenses are mounted not on behalf of a secular politician but for the most important religious leader in the entire world.

Too many of us are getting the character analysis exactly upside down. The more important the position, the more important the character of the person who holds it. Any other approach will eventually result in the loss of trust and avalanche of scandal that we see today. When enough people place institutions (or policies) over principles, then they will overlook dishonesty. They’ll overlook incompetence. They’ll even overlook sex abuse — until the cry of the victims is too great to be ignored.

Yet still we haven’t learned. Still, partisans will impose accountability only when they can do so at zero cost to their preferred leader or their cause. If accountability means the other side wins, accountability has to wait. But zero-cost accountability isn’t evidence of character. It’s certainly not evidence of courage. It’s just convenience.

It’s increasingly clear that partisans would rather burn their credibility to ashes than allow their hated opposition to even sniff at victory — especially when the stakes always seem so high. What’s a little cover-up when the pope is saving the planet? What’s the importance of an affair and potential felonies when the regulatory state is running amok? In the meantime, we let the very foundations of our culture rot from the inside out, believing that better policies are somehow more important than the state of our hearts and souls.

Pope Francis should answer the allegations made against him. He should cooperate fully with impartial investigators. Let’s have the truth. Indeed, let’s have the truth in Washington and Rome, and when the truth comes out we cannot flinch from its consequences. True character demands no less, and only true character can rebuild the institutions that preserve our civilization.

IN THE NEWS: ‘[WATCH] Pope Vows to End Cover-Ups’

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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