I rarely think about corruption. Officials don’t ask me for bribes. Duluth politics are transparent, unlike the Chicago of my childhood, ruled by “the machine.” I’ve seen corruption as something sociologists study, not part of my daily life.
Pope Francis woke me up. His February prayer intention denounced corruption as “the root of slavery, unemployment, and disregard for nature and goods held in common.” He asked Catholics everywhere to pray that people who have “material, political or spiritual power” resist corruption’s lure. He called on the rest of us – you and me – to learn about corruption and denounce it.
Privilege accounts for some of my inexperience with corruption. Educated middle-class white people in nice neighborhoods of a wealthy democratic nation encounter a very different world than those who don’t share those traits. We can detect the impact of privilege by the characteristic clue it leaves behind: those who benefit are oblivious to the situation oppressing others. So it is with me and corruption.
What is corruption? Images jostle in my mind: paying off police to avoid a ticket, government sweetheart contracts, or the Enron scandal. Individual instances miss the core reality: corruption infects whole systems. Corruption is “the termite of politics” and “cancer to the health care industry” and “a plague to the church and the spiritual life” and “a social scourge” that spreads “like a virus,” according to the pope.
The corruption we hear about — Enron’s implosion or Baltimore’s police convictions — are corruption’s failures. Successful corruption infects but doesn’t overwhelm its host institution. It debilitates and grows for decades.
Corruption begins as a condition of being cut off and unaware of the needs and the lives of the many. The pope counseled a group of priests-in-training to avoid a life that is too comfortable. The human heart always wants more, he said. They begin to protect their bubble of comfort and lose their freedom to witness to Gospel values. He gave similar advice to hospital administrators, politicians, and business leaders. No one wakes up one morning to say, “I’m going to be corrupt from now on.” Instead, subtle choices to enhance our well-being eventually enslave us. Our concern for comfort grows into self-serving actions and practices.
Pope Francis’ prayer intention surprised me because, in his other intentions, the spiritual dimension was obvious. I was blind to corruption’s spiritual element, viewing it as bad folks acting bad. I discovered the deeper meaning: corruption as decay and putrification, a good thing turned rotten. In the natural world, it is dead things that decay. It is the reverse in the spiritual realm: small self-serving acts feed the human desire for “more.” The person “loses his bearings” and the full rot sets in.
The Benedictine practice of community is an anti-corruption measure. The Rule tells us to call out those who are off track. Rather than berate and punish, though, members give guidance, correction, and encouragement. What a great image Pope Francis gave us for the start of the Lenten season!