The Cuckoo In Pope Francis’s Nest

Politics has evolved from a sometimes stern defence of core values to the championing of sentimental causes by politicians who often have no other way of showing that they are still in touch with the voters

The Catholic flag in Scotland
Tom Gallagher
On 16 May 2013 12:32

GK Chesterton once remarked that the Catholic Church was ‘an institution run with such slavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God, it wouldn’t last a fortnight’.

Given the personal and institutional crisis rocking the Catholic Church in Scotland, Chesterton, if here now, might have concluded that God had given up on this northern outpost of faith.

For the past decade the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, had busied himself with secular causes, often fashionable with Edinburgh’s left-leaning political elite, as a decline of faith has set in. His New Year’s Eve party for them had become a fixture on the Edinburgh social scene. 

But to the surprise of not a few who knew the inner man, O’Brien claimed a starring role in the Scottish wing of the campaign opposing same-sex marriage. He inveighed against it using not theological arguments but lurid words that could have been borrowed from the front page of a tabloid.

His own world came crashing down when he quit as archbishop on February 26, 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. On March 3, 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’ .

Church leaders braced themselves for a wave of anti-clericalism or for an abandonment of the church by Catholics appalled by the hypocrisy of their spiritual pastor. But, instead, the very opposite problem arose. Waves of sympathy for O’Brien emanated from churchgoers who recalled an approachable and kindly pastor.

In the seaside town of Dunbar, where he wished to retire, over 90 percent of mass-goers signified that he would be welcome in their midst. Many  people 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.

Leading a compassionate church had become the cardinal’s trademark role. He had pursued various causes, often secular ones. The most controversial had been his backing for the 2009 release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, whom a Scottish court had found guilty of the1987 bombing of a Pan-Am jet over Lockerbie. Megrahi lived for three more years and O’Brien joined the SNP government in lambasting the US authorities for their alleged inability to see the grounds for such compassion.

The celebrity prelate was neglecting the mounting problems in his own archdiocese where he faced priests unwilling to obey him. His rejection of the role of spiritual authority only mirrored a wider shift in politics across Britain.

Politics has evolved from a sometimes stern defence of core values to the championing of sentimental causes by politicians who often have no other way of showing that they are still in touch with the voters. This has often been seen as fake sincerity on their part, which only creates future difficulties.  

O’Brien left the country for a while only to reappear a few weeks ago. He stated that, 'If Christianity is about anything at all, it's about forgiveness’  and expressed the hope that his Church would help him to put the scandal behind him. But in a deputy editor’s blog at The Tablet, a Catholic weekly, there was this rejoinder from a reader:

‘Forgiveness is a gift of God to those WHO REPENT. In order to repent, you first need to examine and fully understand the sin. His sin is an abuse of power over many years, and a sin of pride, as displayed in the comment above’.

A man with more self-knowledge than Keith O’Brien appears to possess would have realised that he could not expect his very worldly behaviour to be overlooked, especially at the  start of a new papacy involved with house-cleaning.

Pope Francis duly declared on 8 May:

‘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’.

Exactly a week later, it was announced that Cardinal O’Brien 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.

The sorry affair has been a gift for politicians who wish to be left alone to devise a public morality that will make half-baked and sometimes profoundly harmful plans easier to accomplish.  

While attending the funeral of Margaret Thatcher on April 17, Scotland’s assertive First Minister, Alex Salmond, brushed aside the problems of the Catholic Church and expressed his conviction that in Scotland it had a bright role ahead of it.

These euphemistic remarks bore no relation to the institutional crisis it faced as well as a number of potentially embarrassing court cases. They unwittingly expose the SNP leader’s keenness to paint a country with alarming social problems in the most positive of colours in the hope that the masses will fall for the independence tooth fairy.   

The O’Brien saga highlights the church’s failure  to make Christian ethics a guide for living for a generation of Scottish Catholics. Ironically, its failure to project its values within society enables it to stand alongside its radical secular foes. Arguably, their failings have been far more spectacular.

They have been unable to ensure that their liberal approach to sexuality, marriage and child-rearing has been followed by beneficial social results. It remains to be seen if a battered church still has enough energy to defend its vision for a society where duty and commitment take their place alongside rights. 

Tom Gallagher’s book, Scotland Divided: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis will appear in July

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