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Warts and all
Only by acknowledging our faults can we correct them
Oliver Cromwell by Sir Peter Lely. Source: Wikigallery.org
- Fr William Grimm
- July 10, 2014
After the beheading of King Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell was the virtual dictator of England. Legend has it that when his portrait was being painted, Cromwell ordered the artist -- Sir Peter Lely -- not to use the flattering conventions of portraitists of the time.
The portrait survives, and indeed it does not flatter Cromwell: there is a big wart on his chin. It is probably true that Lely was told by Cromwell to paint an honest picture, since he would not have done so without specific orders. When painting rulers in those days, an artist with an eye to future jobs would usually make his subjects look much better than they actually were.
It is less sure whether the words attributed to Cromwell are an actual quote, but it is said that his instructions were: "Paint me as I am, warts and all!"
In any case, the phrase, "warts and all" has become an English language idiom which denotes honest representation, presenting all the facts even when they are not pretty.
Every person, every institution in the world has warts, unattractive aspects of one kind or another. The Church is no exception.
We know that St Peter was sometimes as dense as the rocks after which he was nicknamed and could be wishy-washy when social pressure was on him. St Paul was an irascible character who did not always get along with co-workers.
The Christians of Corinth dithered when a member of their community committed incest with his own mother. The Galatians paid more attention to traditional pieties than to the Gospel.
In various communities, the wealthy were given special treatment while the poor were shoved aside. Ananias embezzled Church funds. The Church in Sardis put up a good facade, but in fact was rotten at its core. The Christians of Laodicea were tepid.
How do we know about all these warts? Were they ferreted out or even invented by enemies of the Church? No, they are all found in the New Testament.
Even when the Church was a small, weak and persecuted community, we did not hide our faults and failures, but enshrined them in Scripture. Confident that the Holy Spirit is at work in spite of, or even through, our weakness, an unspoken motto of the Church when at its best has always been, "Paint me as I am, warts and all!"
Though the Church has always had and always shall have warts, there are some, especially among Church leaders, who feel that presenting a picture of the Church "warts and all" is wrong. They seem to think that if we hide the warts, no one will notice them.
That is naive at best, dishonest at worst. Bad news about the Church cannot be hidden, and trying to hide it only makes it worse news, as we should be learning.
If the Church’s members and leaders will not admit to their warts, they eventually lose any incentive to heal them. And the world comes to see us as a community of liars. Neither helps our mission to share the Gospel with the world.
Our warts are small truths compared with the full truth of the Gospel, but what sort of witness to that truth can we give if we cannot be trusted to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" in matters of our Church life?
One of the most ugly recent warts has been the cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy and religious. Bishops, superiors and even popes who for various reasons wanted to hide the wart of abuse created an even bigger one that has damaged the mission of the Church throughout the world and will do so for the foreseeable future. Though Pope Francis has begun to deal with the crisis and bring healing to the Body of Christ, the effects of the cover-up will last many more years.
It is a sad truth that belated efforts by the leadership of the Church to deal with the abuse crisis have not come about because of concern for victims, but because the warts of abuse and cover-up have been exposed by others. How much sooner would justice and charity have been served if instead of making believe there were no warts, our leaders had admitted rather than denied them?
Of course, "warts and all" portraits do not focus simply on the warts. But, by presenting the warts in the context of the "all" such portrayals become goads to improvement while respecting the right of people to know those persons, institutions and activities that affect their lives.
The portrayal of the Church "warts and all" should be part of the role of Catholic journalism. Unfortunately, truly independent Catholic journalism is rare, and journalists whose jobs depend upon bishops and religious superiors are too seldom able or willing to show the world that those who follow Christ are not afraid to confess their shortcomings.
That fear itself is one of our warts.
Maryknoll Fr William Grimm, based in Tokyo, is publisher of ucanews.com.