Cardinal Keith O’Brien, whom I mentioned in yesterday’s post on “Sex, horsemeat and plebeian sausage rolls (again)”, has just been accused of some of the very sins it would appear he has been criticising in the recent past:
O’Brien, who is due to retire next month, has been an outspoken opponent of gay rights, condemning homosexuality as immoral, opposing gay adoption, and most recently arguing that same-sex marriages would be “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved”. Last year he was named “bigot of the year” by the gay rights charity Stonewall.
The latest accusations are reported by the BBC in the following way:
The Observer reported that the three priests and one former priest – from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh – complained to the Pope’s representative to Britain, nuncio Antonio Mennini, of what they claimed was the cardinal’s inappropriate behaviour towards them in the 1980s.
I suggest you read both articles before we continue.
A few issues I’d like to comment on here. As described above, Cardinal O’Brien has been given the Stonewall “bigot of the year” award for his comments on and attitudes to gay rights. I’m not sure that hypocrisy is quite the driver here though – at least for O’Brien himself. In the little I know as a lapsed practitioner of Catholicism and its mores, I’m inclined to believe that the very private – and individually harmful – acts the cardinal in question is now accused of having committed can quite easily fit into his public reactions to their perceived cause. That we see it as bigotry – even hypocrisy – is of course our right. This doesn’t mean that O’Brien’s faith can’t lead him to regret the effect that human sexuality might have over some spiritual leader bound by his church’s law not to get involved in its activities. In fact, if the accusations – which apparently the cardinal strongly denies – were eventually found to be true, it could only clarify his recent call for priests to be allowed to marry, procreate and make family. Having barely survived a life of repressed sexuality, his final pre-end-of-professional-life request to make more flexible the hard edges of his church could only be admired. Even if it still left out a substantial part of human experience.
Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t wish he could go further.
There is also another matter that comes to mind. Again, I’m really not privy to the powerplays of the Roman Catholic Church. I can only look from the very outside in and try and understand it as I might any other highly hierarchical and corporately organised institution. But as one of the priests in the Observer report says of the Church’s wider behaviours:
“It tends to cover up and protect the system at all costs,” said one of the complainants. “The church is beautiful, but it has a dark side and that has to do with accountability. If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit.”
And in this I begin to wonder. That these accusations should come to light just before the election of the next pope, instead of twenty years ago – or even as recently as 2005 when Pope Benedict XVI himself became pope – doesn’t seem an entirely innocent act. And that comment – “If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit” – is really rather telling, at least for me. As the Observer also concludes (the bold is mine):
All four have been reluctant to raise their concerns. They are, though, concerned that the church will ignore their complaints, and want the conclave electing the new pope to be “clean”. According to canon law, no cardinal who is eligible to vote can be prevented from doing so.
Does that mean, therefore, that Pope Benedict’s conclave wasn’t “clean”? And if so, what else is about to tumble out of the papal closets? And, exactly, why now?
It doesn’t half seem – again, for an outsider attempting to look in – that the Church has outgrown its ability to behave in a reliably correct manner. Hierarchy has its place, of course – but extreme hierarchy, in the secular world at least, leads to all kinds of abuse. From the big old-fashioned state to the big new-fashioned corporation, the massive lack of true accountability – and the widespread tendencies to hide and obfuscate abuse in amongst long chains of command – are prevalent in almost every structure out there. Whether private or public, the same instincts prevail. Why should the temporal representatives of God be any different?
So is it right to describe Catholics who abuse as bigots and hypocrites? Not necessarily. They may simply be human – with all the frailties such a condition implies. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t require them to bear witness – as, indeed, we all should do in these lives of ours – to those things of an incompatible nature they have said and done throughout their time on this curiously complex planet.
Inappropriate acts which are clearly incompatible with the all-too-human teachings of a man who was allegedly anything but.