Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Life after Cardinal O'Brien

In my recent post on Pope Benedict’s legacy I argued that it was time for the Catholic establishment to take a new approach to issues of gender and sexuality. I suggested that if it didn’t, it could expect a rough ride at home and face increasing marginalisation on issues where it has much of value and relevance to say such as social justice and peace. And I argued that whilst change was far from straightforward, theological rigidity would continue to inflict real damage in the developing world.

A week it seems is not just a long time in politics. At the time I wrote the piece, Cardinal O’Brien was making the headlines as the only man in Britain to have a vote in the conclave to elect a new Pope. Barely a week later, the Cardinal has resigned in the wake of complaints about inappropriate behaviour. 

In between times he had been in the news for speaking out about the issue of celibacy in the priesthood and by arguing that the next Pope should come from the developing world. It’s not gone unnoticed that one of the favourites from Africa whose cause he was advancing has effectively scuppered his chances by arguing that abuse within the church was the result of gay tendencies in the priesthood.

That much and more we all know. Whether Cardinal O’Brien is guilty I don’t know and that’s not the point or the focus of this piece. The complaints should obviously be investigated properly and independently. What does surprise me in that regard however is the church hierarchy’s assurance that this will happen because it’s clear that the church has learnt from its past mistakes and now takes the handling of such complaints very seriously. 

I’ve no doubt that many victims of abuse within the church would question the veracity of that assertion. The reality is that the church establishment has been woefully slow to act and has all too often regarded itself as above the law. In any event this of course is a different story because it involves not children but serving and former priests. 

And the notion that the Cardinal has resigned to avoid the allegations becoming a distraction to the main event, the election of a new Pope, smacks of self interest and hypocrisy on the part of the hierarchy. Several others due to vote in the conclave have form in relation to the cover up of abuse against children.

My recent post prompted a friend of mine to suggest that I was mad and to ask why I would want to be part of a club that simply doesn’t welcome me as a gay man with views on gay marriage, abortion, contraception and gender equality so at odds with those of the hierarchy. Others would go further I’m sure. Why collude with an institution that preaches what it does on such matters with enormously damaging consequences, in the developing world in particular? 

These are very fair questions and challenges. The answer lies in part in the story of my own faith and identity and in part in a belief that things can and must change. So walking away is often tempting and would be a perfectly rational response. For the moment though I plan to stay. In fact I’d argue that for liberal Catholics, this is no time to leave. We have a responsibility to speak up for institutional change.

I have never had any desire to take my political stance to Mass itself. I go to church to pray in peace and long may that continue. I’ve sometimes speculated that I may have cause to get up and walk out in protest against preaching on abortion or sexuality, but one way or another that moment hasn’t presented itself. Just as well because in my imaginings when it does and I shout shame on you at the pulpit and turn on my heels, I trip on my shoelaces and embarrass myself horribly in front of a packed congregation. It would of course be worth the embarrassment.

But I have become increasingly vocal about the unacceptability of the Catholic establishment’s stance and the need for change. Whether it’s helpful to call people bigots is a moot point but it’s important to name bigotry. Calling gay marriage a ‘grotesque subversion of a human right’, is bigotry. Suggesting that there is a ‘link between same sex sexual practice and early death’, is bigotry.

It’s been reported that the Cardinal didn’t so much resign, but was pushed. That much would be consistent with the response of the Vatican to stories of a gay network in its midst. And therein lies one of the fundamental problems with the hierarchy of the Catholic church, its secrecy. It is the ultimate self serving powerful male elite, concerned to protect itself at all costs. Political parties would do well to distinguish their response to allegations of sexual harassment from such a charge.

Whatever the truth of the allegations that have been levelled at the Cardinal, is it really surprising that they should surface in an institutional culture so backward in relation to sex and sexuality? An institution the establishment of which denies the right of its officials any form of active sexual expression. And one that seeks to constrain the sexual choices and behaviours of its lay members where women and gay people are the biggest losers. Worst of all an institution the establishment of which would seek to deny those most at risk and vulnerable, basic sexual health protection. 

And is the fact that the Cardinal previously had a reputation as more of a liberal on the issue of homosexuality something we should bear in mind when considering his recent pronouncements? I’d say it is, but not because I think that merits sympathy. If as some are suggesting his outspoken views on issues of sexuality in the recent past are about currying favour with the Vatican, quite the reverse. 

And what of his recently expressed view that the celibacy of priests is not a matter of ‘divine origin’? Of course he was right. But his argument that it should be a ‘free world’ for priests would have provided little comfort to those whose freedoms he and others in the church establishment have sought to curtail and deny. 

Cardinal O’Brien’s departure is a seismic moment in the life of the Catholic church in Scotland for sure. But what does the future hold? And will any good come of it? Neither the cause nor the manner of his departure leave much room for immediate optimism given what they remind us about the church hierarchy.

I wouldn’t deny that many Catholics support some or all of the church’s teachings on sex and sexuality. But it’s undoubtedly the case that many Catholics in Scotland remain faithful despite, rather than because of, the hierarchy and its stance. And there must be a glimmer of hope that in all the noise their voices will at last start to be sought and heard.  For as long as that hope remains, this liberal Catholic is staying put, but not quietly.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Pope Benedict: A legacy that risks declining relevance

This post was first published in the second edition of Scotland's great new online LGBT magazine Mosaic which was published today. If you haven't read it yet, do take a look. It's packed with interesting features and voices from all sections of the community.

Given the recent history of the Catholic establishment’s intervention on gay marriage in Scotland it would be tempting to respond to the recent announcement of the Pope’s retirement in this publication from a very specific standpoint. Pope Benedict is a theological conservative whose pronouncements on sexuality have been neither compassionate nor progressive. His actions have given succor to the response we’ve seen from the Catholic establishment at home over the last twelve months which led to Cardinal O’Brien being awarded the dubious title of ‘bigot of the year’ in the 2012 Stonewall awards.

But the world is much bigger than Scotland and the issues much bigger than gay marriage. So what has Pope Benedict’s contribution been? What will be his legacy? And as we look to the election of a new Pope, what might the future hold? His own parting words remind us that his successor faces an enormous challenge to reconcile the church’s traditions in a rapidly changing world. The Catholic church may be declining in Europe, but it’s buoyant and even growing elsewhere, for example in Africa. It will be hard to please all of the people all of the time. 

I will make no secret of the fact that I didn’t welcome Pope Benedict’s election. I remember the dismay I felt as I discussed the news with other liberal Catholics. I’ve said previously that it’s pretty odd being a gay Catholic if you’re someone who chooses to act on your attraction to people of the same sex. It’s arguably even odder if you don’t, but that’s another story. Pope Benedict’s election was a moment that tested the boundaries of that oddness. And yet I found myself enormously immersed in his visit to the UK. I was impressed by his thoughtfulness, undoubted intelligence and commitment to ecumenical dialogue.

When I heard about Pope Benedict’s retirement I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with a friend when Pope John Paul died. My friend asserted that his had been a failed papacy. I had big differences with Pope John Paul too, not just on sexuality but on politics. Yet his had been far from a failed papacy. Like it or not, he was an inspiration to millions who arguably breathed new life into a divided church at a very particular moment in 20th century history. But success or failure, his legacy also included theological rigidity on a series of issues relating to gender and sexuality, most disgracefully his opposition to the use of condoms. 

Pope Benedict inherited that legacy and has largely reinforced it. On condom use he appeared to signal a change but only in ‘exceptional’ circumstances (would that HIV in Africa was exceptional) and the Vatican subsequently made it clear the church’s position hadn’t altered. He has taken some important steps further than his predecessor on the issue of abuse within the church, including apologising to victims. But the Vatican’s response has remained painfully conservative and opaque. He has attacked gay marriage as ‘evil’ and its supporters as ‘immoral’. He has made key appointments shoring up his conservative stance, including one of a Cardinal opposed to abortion even in cases of rape. And he has reasserted the Vatican’s opposition to women’s ordination as a matter of ‘divine constitution’, lashing out at those who dared to disobey within the church.

There have been many other aspects to Pope Benedict’s tenure.  But what I’ve highlighted is a failure to grapple with issues of gender and human sexuality. The Pope has said that he is standing down because he feels his health doesn’t enable him to continue to confront the challenges of the modern world. That may be so but it’s also very clear that where these issues are concerned his theological stance hasn’t enabled him to engage with a changing world either. 

He’s not entirely alone in this respect of course. The Anglican response on one or two of these issues has been little better. It’s also true that millions around the world, including some in Scotland and the UK, appear to support his stance on most of these issues. The truth at home in fact is rather different. British Social Attitudes and British Election Study data over the last thirty years shows that those identifying as Catholics have become gradually more liberal on gay relationships and gay adoption (a prominent issue here in recent weeks) at a similar rate to those with no religion. And whilst their views are less liberal than those with no religion, they are often more liberal than those who identify as Anglicans, other Christians and those of other religion.

The unavoidable fact at home however is that the Christian church’s relevance is waning and this is no less true of the Catholic church, arguably more so. As someone who believes passionately in the need for a moral compass in society independent of popular sentiment and that Catholic social teaching can be a force for good on questions of social justice, I think that’s very sad. But on questions of gender and human sexuality the world is changing and hurrah for that. The pace of change is faster in the developed world. But the relevance of change to the lives of people in Africa, for example, is enormous. The ravaging effect of HIV across that continent is well known. And the appalling treatment of sexual minorities in some African countries is now at least in the world’s gaze. Those things mean that while a more liberal stance on such issues may be far from welcome there, for those suffering it is even more pressing and urgent than it is at home.

Pope Benedict has constantly appealed for peace and reached out to other religious traditions for which he deserves credit. But while his resistance to modernity on issues of gender and human sexuality may be applauded in some parts of the world, his stance means that whatever else he might have been or done, it’s arguable that a key feature of his legacy has been declining relevance. And it has compromised the ability of the Catholic church to be a clarion call for social good at a time when the world urgently needs it. 

It’s all too easy within a largely secular discourse to assume that change on these issues within the church can and should happen overnight. It most certainly should in some respects, condom use in particular, but it certainly won’t on other issues, gay marriage for example. I wouldn’t pretend for a moment that a turn to liberalism would be uncomplicated or that it wouldn’t be regarded by many Catholics as hugely divisive. It is absurd however, that in the face of seemingly unending scandals about abuse within the Catholic church, the establishment can’t at least begin to think more openly about the chastity and marriage of priests.

I was touched listening to Sister Wendy on Desert Island Discs recently who when asked about the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception and abortion, just responded in a quiet way that change would come and that we must be patient.  But as Pope Benedict slips into retirement, and liberal Catholics nervously await the election of a new Pope, patience is a virtue I’m struggling with. The harsh truth is that unless and until the Catholic establishment at the Vatican and at home can grapple more sensitively and progressively with issues of gender and human sexuality, it can expect a rough ride. And in the West in particular, it will be increasingly marginalised on other issues where it has much of value and relevance to say.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Equality, adoption and public benefit

This post was first published in Scotland's great new online LGBT magazine Mosaic which was launched today. Do take a look. It's packed with interesting features and voices.

Adoption is in the news on both sides of the border at the moment. Down south the story is a warning to local authorities from the Government – improve your performance or we’ll enforce outsourcing. In Scotland it’s about St Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society and the treatment of same sex prospective adopters. 

​In fact the two stories relate to the same thing – how can we ensure that children waiting to be adopted are placed with parents in good time? And one way of doing that is to broaden the pool of available adopters out there.

I’m writing here in a personal capacity, but I’m also chair of Scottish Adoption, one of only four voluntary adoption agencies in Scotland. St Margaret’s is one of the other three, and one of two originally established as Catholic agencies. I’m a Catholic gay man who is adopted so it’s an issue I’ve thought a lot about.

St Margaret’s objection to being tied by the law is not news in the adoption world. What is new is a ruling from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) in response to a complaint from the National Secular Society. St Margaret’s preferred criteria is to prioritise couples who have been married for at least two years. 

​Marriage is not an option for same sex couples – yet. As a charity, St Margaret’s is obliged to provide public benefit and OSCR’s response to the complaint is that the benefits provided by the agency are ‘unduly restricted’ and create a ‘disbenefit’ to same sex couples. 

 St Margaret’s is taking legal advice. The Education Secretary, Mike Russell, has said he is ‘disappointed’ by the regulator's decision and that the consequences are not in the best interests of the children St Margaret’s helps. He’s due to meet with the agency to discuss the best way forward. 

The row is another manifestation of the tension between religious freedom and equality following recent European Court rulings. I think the European Court got it right. I don’t think people should be prevented from wearing religious symbols at work, health and safety permitting. 

​But I do think that when they’re providing a public service they can’t be allowed to pick and choose who they work with. If you want that choice, the job obviously isn’t for you. It’s not a case of the rights of LGBT people trumping those with religious faith either. Many LGBT people are people of faith too.

And in this instance I don’t think St. Margaret’s or any other agency should be able to pick and choose who gets to adopt for any other reason than the best interests of children. The sexuality of prospective adopters clearly doesn’t meet that test. 

​The Catholic Church establishment may not like the law, but an organisation which benefits from charitable status must provide public benefit in return. And it shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate about the receipt that benefit.

I don’t want St Margaret’s to disappear. This isn’t because I think it would prevent Catholic parents from adopting. They are free to go to other agencies, though it’s important that all agencies also consider the interests of a child who may grow up to be lesbian, gay or bisexual. But it would be unfortunate to lose the expertise of one of a handful of specialist voluntary adoption agencies. 

​Adoption is challenging and complex for everyone involved and the interests of children needing to be adopted are best served by a plurality of agencies. It’s for that reason I really hope talks succeed. But they shouldn’t do so at the expense of equality.