Pope Francis strongly proclaims that the Church is not a club for saints, nor should it be a place of arbitrary judgement of neighbour, but rather a home where the sinner can seek shelter, repent and embark on the search for conversion and forgiveness.
Church teaching strongly proclaims the possibility of conversion, which should never be ignored. By its very name, the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department, which runs the city’s prison system, gives recognition to the same truth.
However, this is often only seen from the inside and is not necessarily the perception of wider society, which often views faith in a personal God and dedication to regular worship as an admission of weakness and the need for an external prop to get through life.
It is often also read as being a public proclamation of self-righteousness or purity, so when a person of strong faith with a dedication to worship goes astray, it is easy to attach the tag of hypocrite or sham.
Such claims may have some justification, but they should never be slung at random. There are many leaders of nations who attend Church on a regular basis, yet they are not seen as flaunting a holier than thou image.
One of two that have been regularly questioned in the public arena were the dictator-president of The Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, who employed the services of a personal chaplain and had a chapel in his Malacañang palace, while at the same time brutalising his people.
Chile’s Augusto Pinochet was also a regular in the front pew of the cathedral in his capital city of Santiago, while carrying out a bloody cleansing of his nation of anyone who raised the slightest objection to his rule of fear.
While their public displays of Godliness were often ridiculed, a newspaper in Manila was more insightful, publishing a cartoon depicting a camel trying to negotiate the eye of a needle etched into a stained glass window to which Marcos had put his back as he knelt in deep prayer at his priedieu.
The eye of a needle was a type of stile that allows human passage through a space that animals could not negotiate. In the gospel story from which the image comes, Jesus notes, “I tell you that it is easier for a camel to put his head through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:24).
Similar images are found in the Islamic faith. The Qu’ran says that the impious shall not enter the gates of heaven until the camel passes through the eye of a needle.
As John Dalberg-Acton noted, “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The implication is clear. Religious faith is not a shield against mistaken judgement, dysfunctionality or the temptation to seek the pleasures of the flesh ahead of the virtues of the just. All religions recognise faith is no guarantee of morality, but they also recognise the need for ongoing conversion.
Throw away lines about public figures somehow posturing self-righteousness from behind the curtain of religious faith, simply because of the personal dedication of their lives, are at least churlish.
Sinners do have a future, but saints only have a past. JiM