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.

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