Cardinal sin of sex in the church

Cardinal Keith O'Brien has resigned in the wake of allegations of inappropriate behaviour. (AFP)

Cardinal Keith O'Brien has resigned in the wake of allegations of inappropriate behaviour. (AFP)

The Scottish Catholic church announced that Pope Benedict had accepted the cardinal's resignation as archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, which came after the Observer disclosed a series of allegations of "improper conduct" by three priests and one former priest.

O'Brien has denied the allegations and had been expected to continue in his post as head of the Scottish Catholic church until mid-March, when he was due to retire at age 75. In a detailed statement, however, O'Brien said he resigned on Monday February 25, and apologised to any people he had let down. He said he did not want the controversy to overshadow the election of the new pope.
He will not now take part in the election of a successor to Benedict, leaving Britain unrepresented in the process – he was the only cardinal in the British Catholic churches.

In any case, this shows how very sensitive the Roman Catholic church has become towards sexual scandal. The long years of trying to tough out problems and of circling the wagons are over, at least in the developed world. Cardinals now get the same treatment as priests.

The other remarkable change shown by this is within the culture of the church. Priests now dare to complain about their superiors through the back channel to Rome provided by the Vatican's diplomatic service. That is how these allegations were made. There was a time when complaining to Rome about your bishop or cardinal was a one-way ticket to a posting on Craggy Island. There are probably still a great many crimes or misdemeanours that a priest with a sense of self-preservation would hesitate to denounce his superiors for, but it seems that sexual abuse is no longer one of them. This is progress, though slow and belated.

Otherwise, the story illustrates the grotesque and humiliating difficulties that the Roman Catholic church has knotted itself into where sex and gay people are concerned. If the allegations are correct, you would need a heart of flint not to feel some sympathy for the cardinal as well as for his victims. Celibacy is difficult and sometimes lonely for anyone.

Whisky and manly bonding
The traditional remedy for loneliness, in Scots and Irish Catholicism, involved medication with whisky and manly bonding. If your inclination is in any case towards men, this is not going to be very helpful. We should not be surprised if some men sometimes fail it. Journalists and Guardian readers who never get drunk and have regrettable sexual episodes are entitled to completely unalloyed joy at the spectacle of a moralist revealed as a hypocrite. The rest of us should temper our delight.

Of course, the real problem is that the Roman Catholic church expects an entirely unrealistic standard of continence from its priesthood. Some priests can manage celibacy. The evidence from all around the world is that most can't. They certainly can't always. In the developing world the problem is largely one of priests having unofficial heterosexual families, as Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines – an outside candidate for the papacy – pointed out last week. In countries where that isn't an available alternative, the priesthood becomes a refuge for gay men – especially in societies where homophobia is the public norm.

This fact adds irony to O'Brien's denunciations of gay marriage. You can't really expect better from a church that still hasn't come to terms properly with heterosexual marriage, as its position on artificial contraception shows. There are many great Catholic feminists, some of them nuns. But you would never guess this from the official doctrine, which still proceeds as if marriage was something in which a man took the initiative, rather than a partnership of equals. And a church that can't treat women as equals is certainly not going to be realistic about marriage between two men.

All Christians are called to be perfect, and in that sense all Christian moral doctrine is unrealistic. But there are some forms of perfection that are damaging to try for. The demand that all Catholic clergy should live as if sex is something that only ever happens to other people is one of those.

It has outlived its usefulness and is now an engine of cruelty and hypocrisy. It's a very great shame that O'Brien's fall will be used by the Vatican's enemies of progress to discredit his brave and sensible suggestion last week that the celibacy of the priesthood be reconsidered. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

Andrew Brown's most recent book, Fishing in Utopia, won the 2009 Orwell Prize

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