Cardinal O’Brien plays the compassion card and loses
Cardinal O’Brien plays the compassion card and loses
By Damian Thompson Last updated: May 16th, 2013
This is a guest post by Tom Gallagher, professor emeritus of politics at Bradford University and an expert on Scottish Catholicism. Like an earlier post by Prof Gallagher, it will make painful reading for Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
On 8 May Pope Francis took to task worldly figures in the Catholic Church who exploited the authority held by their offices for personal advantage. His words are worth pondering in light of the pit which the Catholic Church in Scotland has fallen into:
“We think of the harm inflicted on the People of God by men and women of the Church who are careerists, social climbers, who ‘use’ the people, the Church, brothers and sisters—those they should serve—as trampolines for their own personal interests and ambitions. But these do great harm to the Church.”
A week before, Keith O’Brien, for a decade a member of the college of cardinals, had shown up in Scotland as if life could continue for him as normal. He had quit as archbishop on 26 February after he had been reported to the Vatican for allegedly inappropriate acts with three priests and one ex-priest in his archdiocese. Legal action was briefly threatened by him and then dropped. Instead, on 3 March he issued a statement admitting that “there had been times that his sexual conduct had fallen below what is expected of a priest, archbishop and cardinal”.
The 75-year-old then left the country for what many expected to be a lengthy exile. After it emerged that he had fathered a child and maintained a clandestine family, Bishop of Casey of Galway had shown penitence by spending 13 years in Ecuador doing aid work from 1993 to 2006. But Keith O’Brien lacked the same humility and appeared to think that, in hopefully new times, his aura of kindliness would enable him to ride out this storm.
In the seaside town of Dunbar, where he wished to retire, a survey among Mass-goers was organized by some of his allies and over 90 per cent signified that he would be welcome in their midst. The bench of bishops were horrified as O’Brien’s mindset became increasingly apparent. He had returned without notifying them and had made it known, via the media, that he expected the Church to help him put the scandal behind him: “If Christianity is about anything at all, it’s about forgiveness.”
He did not appear to share the view, expressed by the Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, on 4 March that “the credibility and moral authority of the Catholic Church in Scotland had been dealt a serious blow”. It is quite likely that an ageing leadership expected an upsurge of anti-clericalism in a land that might no longer be Protestant but had not ceased to be anti-Catholic; and/or a boycott of church services (or more likely the collection plate) by irate Catholics who felt badly let down. They exist and may even be the silent majority, but instead the bishops faced an unexpected denouement.
It emerged that many Catholics still stood by their fallen archbishop. They were ready to accord him the forgiving treatment that John F Kennedy had received when news of his promiscuity, while American president, posthumously became public knowledge. Prof Tom Devine, the distinguished historian, whose increasingly pro-Nationalist outlook matches the wider shift in Scottish Catholic thinking, urged that he be left to live his life in peace. Baroness Kennedy, one of the pillars of the human rights industry, weighed in on his behalf as did Margo McDonald, the Nationalist whose main preoccupation has been to legalise assisted dying in Scotland.
O’Brien came out in favour of the independence cause as soon as he became cardinal. He lambasted the USA for its lack of understanding after the Scottish government released in 2009 the man whom a Scottish court had found guilty of the1987 bombing of a Pan-Am jet over Lockerbie .
Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic churchman turned his gaze away from mounting problems in his own archdiocese to pursue the celebrity path. By becoming entangled with niche issues at the expense of his pastoral and spiritual role, he was reflecting a deepening irresponsibility that was particularly marked in the world of British politics.
Politics has evolved from a sometimes stern defence of core values to the championing of sentimental and gimmicky causes by politicians who often have no other way of showing that they are still in touch with the voters. This has often correctly been seen as fake sincerity on their part which only creates future difficulties. Social crises often stemming from a huge demand on limited welfare resources is one example of the abandonment of the most elementary prudence by those at the helm of the state’s affairs.
In Scotland, the culture of compassion has been a bonanza for Alex Salmond and the SNP who hope that a romantic cause laden with grievances will be seductive enough for Scots to take leave of their economic senses in the 2014 referendum on Scotland’s political future.
While attending the funeral of Margaret Thatcher on 17 April, Salmond pronounced himself impressed by the continuing strength of O’Brien’s Church and expressed his conviction that in Scotland it had a bright future.
But yesterday it was announced that the Cardinal was leaving Scotland to undertake a period of spiritual renewal, prayer and penance and that any return would have to be agreed with the Vatican. Having arguably performed some of his key duties in a negligent and irresponsible way, he appears now to lack the nerve to leave the priesthood, perhaps seeing out his remaining years living in Dunbar or, if too inhibiting, occupying a flat in Edinburgh’s New Town. Perhaps his ultimate timorousness after flirting with secular delights is a defining trait for the restless but confused Scots who in many cases, muttering under their breath, will back the Union in 2014.
No doubt naively, when this crisis broke, I had hoped that it might re-energise the church and ultimately lead to a time of renewal. But unless Rome sees the need for a radical departure in choosing O’Brien’s successor in Edinburgh, there are growing signs that a defensive clerical establishment will seek to ride out the crisis with minimum change. A secular order will, in turn, be able to entrench its influence, facing only feeble competition in the realm of ideas about the direction Scotland should be taken in. This is highly regrettable. Clearly what Scotland needs is voices offering renewal for a society that has few spiritual resources of the kind needed to withstand a twin economic and spiritual crisis gnawing away at the vitals of its national life.
Tom Gallagher’s book, Scotland Divided: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis will appear in July.
Posted on May 17, 2013, in Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Child Sex Abuse, Clergy Abuse, Clergy Sex Abuse, Pope Benedict, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, Priest Child Sex Abuse, Religion, Roman Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church Sex Abuse and tagged Archbishop of Glasgow Philip Tartaglia, Bishop Casey of Galway, Catholic Church in Scotland, College of Cardinals, Margaret Thatcher, Pope Francis, Scottish Catholicism, The Vatican, Tom Gallagher professor emeritus of politics at Bradford University. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.