One of the charges often levied against religion by its detractors is that much of organized religion is a scam, designed to make money, wield political power, and hop in bed with power rather than speak truth to it. And there are certainly enough bad actors in the religion business to make it a plausible charge. I hasten to add that even if true, the charge tells us nothing about the truth of any particular religion; bad actors can and sometimes do promote causes that are themselves legitimate causes.
One of the worst actors in this respect has traditionally been the Catholic church. There is a long, unseemly, and well-documented history of Vatican involvement with organized crime, corrupt bankers, and others who seemingly have little in common with the teachings of Jesus. In 1982, Roberto Calvi, who had been dubbed "God's banker" because of the close ties between his bank and the Holy See, either committed suicide or was murdered just as prosecutors were closing in on the money laundering Calvi had long been doing for the Italian Mafia. The Catholic official who headed the Vatican Bank at the time, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, reportedly shrugged and said, "Oh, well, you can't run the church on Hail Marys."
Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, a now deceased archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, was known in the Vatican as "Cardinal Moneybags" because of his habit of showing up in Rome twice a year with millions of dollars in cash, much of which came from the New York mob. Cardinal Spellman was also known to enjoy the company of underage male prostitutes; his Boston colleague Richard Cardinal Cushing once had to get him out of a spot when he picked up a teenage male hooker on a trip to Beantown. (And speaking of memorable quotations, Cardinal Cushing was fond of saying, "My dear departed mother, may she rest in peace, could neither read nor write, but she could certainly handle a dollar, and so, thank God, can I.")
Enter Pope Francis. Pope Francis got his white cap when his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, decided to retire early, in part because of scandals leaking out of the Vatican that he was unable to control. I was a bit surprised at the choice; Francis was then 76 years old and, in light of the many challenges the Holy See was facing, I expected someone young and vigorous.
He may not be young, but he has certainly shown himself to be vigorous, at least where looking after the church's ethics is concerned. In a little more than a year, he has fired virtually the entire hierarchy of the Vatican Bank and replaced them with reformers. He has fired at least two bishops for leading too lavish a lifestyle on the church's dime. He himself gave up the sumptuous papal apartments in favor of more monastic living. And today, he publicly excommunicated the entire Italian Mafia, despite the huge financial contributions the Mafia has given the church over the years. Just for good measure, he told the bishops to stop harping on social issues and start feeding the poor. And his first appointments to the College of Cardinals, the body that will ultimately choose his successor, mostly appear to be reformers as well.
I don't agree with Pope Francis on everything, but this first 16 months has certainly been promising. Maybe Rome is finally under the stewardship of a shepherd who actually understands not only that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, but also understands why. Maybe St. Peter finally has a successor willing to tell the rich young ruler that he lacks but one thing, and that he should give what he has to the poor and then follow Jesus. Maybe the Servant of the Servants of God actually gets that power was meant to be used in the service of others.
If so, I wish him a long and successful papacy.