The future pope Joseph Ratzinger dragged the Catholic church into the poisonous American presidential campaign of 2004, through a memo about denying pro-choice politicians communion. Its target was John Kerry, a sincere Catholic who nonetheless believed that the law should not dictate to women on abortion, and went on to lose to George W Bush (before popping up in London as President Obama’s secretary of state). Three years later, in an outburst that also suggested abortions were resulting in “two Dunblane massacres a day”, Cardinal Keith O’Brien attempted to unleash American-style culture wars on the UK, by questioning whether MPs supporting abortion rights should continue receiving communion.
It is only one expression of a notably unreflective priest’s desire to build a narrow church – there was also, for example, the intemperate likening of embryology research to Frankenstein. Another manifestation – and one that seems poignant in the aftermath of the Observer’s disclosure of allegations about “inappropriate acts” with younger priests, which prefigured his departure on Monday – was his trenchant denunciation of reforms to advance gay rights. After having opposed civil partnerships in the past, the cardinal – who was the archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews, and the leader of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland – last year pledged fresh funding for propaganda against gay marriage.
There is no Catholic monopoly on sexual scandal – as current events within the atheistically led Liberal Democrat party underline. It is also important to acknowledge that despite having been “resigned” (or, more precisely, “prematurely retired”) by the Vatican, Cardinal O’Brien has contested the allegations, which is what the claims reported by the Observer remain. But, stepping back from the specifics of this case, one cannot brush off the evidence that Rome has a special problem with sex. In the Vatican itself, even if one discounts innuendo about Pope Benedict XVI’s own proclivities as he hangs up his cassock, that cleric – who has denounced both homosexuality and masturbation as moral disorders – has indubitably been weakened by the perception that he looked away in some cases where priests abused boys. In the US and more particularly Ireland, the institution has been shaken by the failure of so many priests to live up to the chaste ideal that the church has long (though not always) imposed upon (most but not all) of its priests.
The caveats in that last sentence are important, since they indicate room for argument. Indeed, extending the married priesthood – beyond those reactionaries who fled the C of E in fear of women priests and yet brought their own wives with them – was a rare reform that Cardinal O’Brien backed. Suspend disbelief and imagine gay marriage being blessed and accepted within the priesthood too, and the church could legitimise the sex life of most of its ministry, reducing the scope of scandal to the minority of adulterers and paedophiles. Back in the real church, however, there is denial not only of all passions on the part of the priesthood but also of contraception in the maritally licensed love of the flock.
Theories abound about the possible way in which repression may foster sexual problems. Psychoanalytically, there is the potential connection between what is desired and what is denied. Theologically, some suggest that Catholic doctrines that have to be believed and yet which cannot be in any ordinary sense – think of wine turning to blood – may attract clergymen in denial about parts of themselves. More commonsensically, loneliness may turn to desperation, and eventually indecency. All of these theories are contestable and contested, but what cannot be contested is that the church has failed to manage, still less extinguish, sexuality by moralising decree. Instead, the papacy of Benedict has made inescapably thorny problems harder to solve. And Cardinal O’Brien has been caught by the spire of a narrow church that he helped to build.
Catholic Church: cardinal errors – The Guardian
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