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Should accused cardinals help elect next pope?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Cardinal Keith O Brien (L) sitting with Pope Benedict XVI (R) with full conclave of cardinals behind them (Credit: Catholic Church/Mazur)

Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic official will not participate in the upcoming papal conclave.  Accused of “inappropriate acts” by three priests and one former priest in the 1980s, Cardinal Keith O’Brien has resigned.  He stated: “I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me, but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor.”  The cardinal added: “Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God.  For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended.”

By contrast, Cardinal Roger Mahony is planning to attend the conclave, though thousands of petitioners have asked that he defer.  He has been accused of covering up 129 cases of abuse in the Los Angeles archdiocese where he was archbishop from 1985 to 2011.  The current Archbishop of Los Angeles has publicly expressed his support for Cardinal Mahony’s participation.

While neither cardinal has been convicted of any wrongdoing, this controversy raises a larger question: can a minister who falls into moral sin be restored?

Scripture clearly teaches that ministers must be above reproach: “Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s word, he must be blameless” (Titus 1:7; cf. 1 Timothy 3:2-7), for “it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2).  Christian leaders must “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12; cf. 1 Peter 5:3; Ephesians 5:3).

At the same time, God’s word teaches, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Galatians 6:1).  We are to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).  God promises that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  Remember that Abraham, Moses, David, and Peter were used by God after personal failures.

Clearly, sin on the part of Christian leaders injures the witness of the church in our culture.  But we don’t want to be “the only army that buries its wounded.”  How should the church balance accountability and forgiveness?  Please share your thoughts in our comments section; for more on this subject, I invite you to read my essay “Can ministers be restored after personal failure“.

Mark Twain said, “I would not join any club that would have me for a member.”  By his grace, God’s forgiveness is available to anyone willing to receive it.  Why do you need such mercy this morning?  How will you share it with someone today?