How Catholics can learn from Cardinal O'Brien's disgrace
If the last two weeks help people to realize that holiness is the only acceptable standard for a Christian life, Cardinal O’Brien won’t have stumbled in vain.
Losing a Pope must have been demoralising enough for Scottish Catholics; no one anticipated losing their Cardinal as well. In a mere 36 hours, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, of Edinburgh, tumbled from his post as the most senior Catholic cleric in Great Britain to the most reviled man in the country.
Allegations in The Guardian by journalist Catherine Deveney appear to be true. Three priests and one former priest accused him of molesting them when they were seminarians and he was the spiritual director of their seminary back in the 1980s. O’Brien is not contesting their stories. Earlier this week he admitted that his sexual conduct had at times "fallen beneath the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”.
In one of his last official acts, Benedict XVI quickly accepted O’Brien’s resignation. The cardinal will not be attending next week’s conclave to elect the new Pope and has disappeared on an extended holiday overseas. He will probably be carpeted in the Vatican after the new Pope is elected.
What amplified the scandal of O’Brien’s hidden past was his strident attacks on the legalisation of same-sex marriage. He described it as “madness”, as “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right", and as unacceptable as reintroducing slavery. His arguments were so effective that last November the gay activist group Stonewall gave him their “bigot of the year award. But surely he knew that that the men he had molested could not be trusted to remain silent and that his opponents would be ruthless in exploiting his double standard.
Why did he risk this? On the one hand, he deserves praise for supporting a cause he knew to be true despite past weakness. On the other hand, psychologically, his audacity is baffling. It must have been the most reckless act of defiance since Oscar Wilde sued the father of his gay lover for libel for describing him as a “sodomite”. Instead of vindicating himself, Wilde ended up convicted of gross indecency, spent two years in jail with hard labour, and died penniless in Paris. The cardinal's fall has been equally tragic.
What are the implications of this affair?
“The most stinging charge which has been levelled against us in this matter is hypocrisy, and for obvious reasons,” O’Brien’s stand-in, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, told his congregation. “I think there is little doubt that the credibility and moral authority of the Catholic Church in Scotland have been dealt a serious blow.”
But perhaps Tartaglia should not be so pessimistic. This business of losing all moral authority is a perplexing and mysterious business. Most people would admit that the apparent double life of the Cardinal has destroyed his own moral authority. But the institution he represents? Not so fast.
Counter-examples are legion. The former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, campaigned on an ethics and integrity platform but was forced to resign after lurid stories about his involvement with call girls. This did no damage to the high office of the Governor of New York, nor to the cause of same-sex marriage, which he championed.
US President Bill Clinton was a notorious philanderer. He abused his office to seduce Monica Lewinsky, equivocated to a grand jury, lied over and over again to the public, plunged the US into a constitutional crisis and… is the most popular public figure in America. The Presidency has lost none of its gravitas.
Closer to home, the BBC suffered an enormous blow to its reputation only a few months ago. Another network revealed that one of best-loved stars, the late Jimmy Savile, was a monstrous paedophile who had abused hundreds of children, sometimes on BBC premises. When he was alive, BBC higher-ups suspected but did nothing; and after his death they shelved an investigation. The judge who investigated Britain’s most prolific serial killer is chairing an review of this public relations disaster.
Yet if the BBC had suffered any loss of moral authority or self-confidence, it was not evident in its commentary on the Cardinal’s disgrace. On BBC Scotland’s NewsNight a conventicle of the “unco guid” warmed their hands over the demise of public trust. And in London, an inquisitorial BBC presenter delivered a stern lecture to retired Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor: “The [Catholic] message cannot be delivered if the Church is not seen to have absolute moral authority, and as we speak, it doesn’t.”
So it is premature to mourn the loss of the Church’s moral authority. Most people form their opinion of the value of the Church’s teaching from its effects on the people they know, not on bishops and cardinals. The Church will learn lessons from this sorry affair, reform, and move on. Hopefully, though, without the BBC's humbug.
Ever since Judas, the misdeeds of wayward clergy have afflicted the Church. But its moral authority is not based on the personal achievements of clergy but on the Christian message. Its claim is that Christ’s teachings, if heeded, will eventually help people to overcome their defects and reach holiness. Given human weakness, the surprising thing is not how many clerics have fallen, but how few. From a theological point of view, a hundred sinners prove that the Church is as human as any other institution; one saint proves that it is also divine.
In a back-handed way, attacks on the Church’s alleged hypocrisy actually confirm the esteem in which people hold it. No one expects all politicians to be sincere and morally consistent – only to act that way long enough to get votes.
“‘Doing the right thing’ may require compromise; some compromises are certainly possible without compromising [politicians],” wrote Ruth Grant, of Duke University, in her book Hypocrisy and Integrity. “‘Doing the right thing’ may require deception, or ethical posturing, or both; some forms of hypocrisy may be perfectly acceptable or even laudable.”
Or, in the words of Groucho Marx, “The most important thing in business is honesty. Once you can fake that, you've got it made.”
But committed Christians are held to a higher standard. People expect them not only to look sincere, but to be sincere. For them, hypocrisy is far worse than inconsistency. Exploiting the appearance of holiness to attain evil ends is a kind of blasphemy which stains the transcendent holiness of God. Dante places hypocrites in the second lowest circle of hell. Scotland’s own Robert Burns made hypocrisy a special theme of his poetry. He was scathing about the narrow-minded, rigid, pious establishment of his day, which despised human frailties. His “Address To The Unco Guid” (BBC presenters, take note) begins:
O ye wha are sae guid yoursel', Sae pious and sae holy, Ye've nought to do but mark and tell Your neibours' fauts and folly!
“Never waste a crisis,” says Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff. “It can be turned to joyful transformation.” If the last two weeks help people to realize that holiness is the only acceptable standard for a Christian life, Cardinal O’Brien won’t have stumbled in vain.
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