Tuesday, 5 March 2013
Whence comes this restraint? From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty
Cardinal Keith O'Brien's admission of sexual misdemeanours has shocked the Church in Scotland, not to say in the rest of the UK. I confess to having been impressed by O'Brien's contribution to the culture wars last year - not because of the arguments (which often lacked finesse and sounded sometimes slightly hysterical) - but because he seemed to have found a backbone where many mitred executives exhibit a dubious species of cartilage. The public fall of this most vociferous of Catholic defenders (at least in recent times) has done more damage in the public eye to the Catholic cause than I currently care to imagine.
But few have yet to see this issue in the light of another report which swayed into the public domain last week and barely caused a stir. The Telegraph reported last week on the latest findings of sociology researcher Prof Linda Woodhead concerning guilt in a modern religious context. Woodhead's research covers a range of denominations but it is the figures about Catholics that made me sit up the most:
Only 12% of practising Catholics (and 9% non-practising) would feel any guilt about using contraception.
Only 57% of Catholics said they would feel guilty about adultery (just 1% higher than the general population).
Only 19% of Catholic said they would feel guilty about sex before marriage.
Only 30% of Catholic said they would feel guilty about using pornography.
The statistics make for good headlines ... only, there were none or hardly any that dealt with them. Now, of course, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. But am I the only person who sees a strong correlation between this wholesale failure of the Church to shape its members' consciences and the fall of a Scottish cardinal who has admitted to sexual misdemeanours apparently committed against those for whom he had pastoral responsibility? Assuming - I think quite safely - that these misdemeanours are the ones of which O'Brien stands accused, we can conclude that this is not the case of a delinquent cleric wandering off to a gay bar in some unknown corner of a city. This is the case of a man with elevated responsibilities preying - whether in drink or not is beside the point - on those who were placed under his care. My gay acquaintances tell me that it is his lies rather than the sex which we should be concerned about. I shake my head at their failure to see that it is neither the lies nor the sex - though these are bad enough - that are worrying, so much as O'Brien's exploitation of his pastoral and moral position.
But even if we set aside the abuse of his pastoral responsibility, O'Brien is simply the most public example of what is now the withered Catholic conscience in 21st century Britain. O'Brien is supposed to be a rarity among the clergy, and I would like to think that is true. But how can we say he is a rarity among Catholics, the vast majority of whom - as Woodhead's research shows - have very little conscientious objection to sexual licence? Bad leaders are the ruin of the people, but the people get the leaders they deserve. In this context, how can we be surprised if a man so ready to fly morally as high as a kite, falls like Icarus on a pair of Tesco Value wings? I sat here yesterday wondering if O'Brien might even be a kind of Catholic suicide bomber, destroying himself in order to attack the institution that he has betrayed so badly. But that would be crediting him both with far too much intelligence and far too much malevolence. He is - by all the available evidence - simply a man with an eye for the main chance. I suspect there is a little bit of O'Brien's badness lurking in all of us. His fall should be a salutary warning.
Meanwhile, in Rome, before O'Brien's admission, they were talking about the accusations against him being the manifestation of a homosexual plot to derail the conclave. We might dismiss and deplore such talk as complacency, were it not for the fact that we now find at least one of the accusations against O'Brien (and of course O'Brien's resignation) was known to Rome before the Observer's report, and quite possibly as early as late last year. At the very least, there were ten days between the pope's announcement of his resignation and the story of O'Brien's accusers becoming public when high ranking members of the Church's hierarchy must have known what was happening.
Autrement dit, dear friends, ...well, this looks/appears like / stinks of/ resembles a cover up; of a decision to let O'Brien sail into retirement with these accusations unmentioned ... until the press got hold of them. Unless they were outpaced by the events, it seems that someone somewhere with serious authority chose to risk the greater scandal which has now occurred, rather than face the lesser scandal of O'Brien retiring early under suspicion. Have the Roman authorities learnt so little? Are they so preoccupied with cardinatial dignity? Even now? These days, humble parish priests get put on gardening leave when this kind of thing happens. I know of several priests who have had to endure months of uncertainty in a state of clerical limbo while sexual allegations were examined. And yet O'Brien, whose resignation was on the pope's desk, got to carry on in his position as the senior Catholic hierarch in Scotland and the only cardinal from the UK heading to the conclave as an elector.
Whichever way you look at it - blame it on complacency, indolence, unmitigated esteem for the cardinatial dignity, or whatever - Rome has played its own part in helping O'Brien bring further opprobrium on the Catholic Church in the UK. If O'Brien had exercised some self mastery, he would be going to the conclave. If those responsible had exercised their responsibility, the Church would have been seen to act with the determination of an institution resolved to expel from its body the toxic contagion of sexual misconduct and the fear of minor scandals which lead ineluctably to even greater scandals.
We don't need a reforming pope right now. We just need one who will preach penance. Reformers who are not saints become wreckovators. Christians who know no penance are just deluded. And those who keep whinging about the terrible persecution of the Church by the secularists need only reflect on this sobering fact: that on the eve of the conclave, the Church - in O'Brien and in its administrative failure - made the bullets for those who would attack it.