Cardinal Keith O’Brien has resigned. The only Scottish Cardinal was due to step down shortly anyway because of the guidance that Scottish bishops step down from that role aged 75. However after the story on Sunday in the Observer (not the Scottish Catholic Observer) alleging that the Cardinal, 30 years or more ago behaved “inappropriately” towards 4 men, 3 of whom are priests, and one who resigned his ministry, His Eminence took the decision, approved by Pope Benedict, to bring his departure as Archbishop of the Diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh forward. He will not attend the Conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict.
First of all, I know nothing about the allegations beyond what has been reported. I know that the Cardinal has denied behaving “inappropriately”. I am not in position to comment on the truth or otherwise of the allegations. This blog is not about questions of guilt or innocence.
Secondly the use of the word “inappropriate” may turn out to be a lawyer-imposed condition. It is not, necessarily, an accusation of criminality for example. However it has allowed people to super-impose their own narratives on the story. Few come to this with an open mind.
Thirdly, as I mentioned on Twitter, I think yesterday was a sad day – for the Cardinal, for the Church and for Scotland.
The Cardinal has served his Church and its members faithfully for many years. He has generally been unafraid to make the teaching of the Church clear, though this has not stopped people including the media from misrepresenting his views and those of the Church. It might be asked if his interview last week where he discussed priests marrying was wise, not being in accord with the Church’s views. But, despite his years of work he will be forever known as the Cardinal who resigned, accused of all sorts of iniquity (even where he is not). His legacy and reputation lie in tatters, whether there is any truth in the allegations or not.
The timing of the report was perfect for the purposes of those who have made them. In the fevered coverage of the Pope’s resignation and of the imminent Conclave the story would have been prominent in the world’s press, fitting in with some of the more extreme accusations about “gay conspiracies” in the Vatican. Any book written by or about spin doctors makes clear that the timing of a story can be even more important than the substance. The release of this, after 30 years, could not have been timed to better effect.
His Eminence did what has become very rare these days. He stepped down almost immediately. Having watched politicians cling on to the last minute (Chris Huhne being only the most recent example) it is refreshing to see someone take a decision which might well be contrary to their own interests in the wider good. Cardinal O’Brien has done so. Even if it turns out he has been fallible and human as alleged, I think that the manner of his departure is dignified and appropriate.
For the Church here and worldwide it was a sad day too. It is not, however, the darkest time for the Scottish Church since the Reformation, as I have seen it called. (Having written this, I see that Professor Tome Devine has called the matter “probably the gravest single public crisis to hit the Catholic Church in Scotland since the Reformation”. I bow to the learned Professor’s expertise in these matters, although I still think that my confidence in how the Church in Scotland will deal with it is justified.)
The Church has survived many more serious challenges over 2,000 years and in Scotland since the faith came here through Saints Columba and Ninian in the 5th and 6th Centuries.
The story provides ammunition for those who detest the Church and what it stands for. Already it goes beyond the 5 players in it.
It will also not be a surprise to see more allegations about Cardinals round the world as the Conclave approaches as it will be open season and, as we have already seen, an ideal time for similar allegations to get air-time. That, again, is not to say that any allegations of whatever nature will necessarily be wrong, but all around the world there are people who would wish to do harm to the Church. It would not surprise me to see articles about the Conclave referring to numerous participating Cardinals against whom allegations have been made – let’s wait and see. (But not the Holy See)
It is true that, as the years have passed, the church-going Catholic population has declined. But amongst those who do go to Mass I have detected an increased vibrancy. Maybe I am lucky in attending Mass where our Parish Priest is clear, unequivocal (and entertaining! After all I suspect few parishes heard a sermon last Sunday on the resignation of Pope Benedict where Thin Lizzy and The Stranglers were mentioned!)
But our Sunday Mass is filled to capacity each week, and whilst there are many older parishioners, there are many young families too. At least where I go to Mass the next generations are already there and active.
Some reports yesterday suggested that the Catholic community in Scotland was now bereft and leaderless. But that is untrue. In our parishes we have our priests, deacons and active laity. We have our bishops. We have our Pope and shortly will have a new one. Most importantly we have our Church and our Faith.
In the same way that the election of a new Pope brings fresh vigour to the Vatican and the Church, the selection of a new Archbishop and Cardinal will do so for the Church here too. As the Cardinal had already reduced his duties because of health reasons a more active Cardinal will do more.
But, for the positives to come, it is still a sad day for us, as we know that a tide of ill-informed nonsense will surround us. (Which is not to suggest that all the coverage will be “ill-informed nonsense” – some of it will be sensible – most will not).
But we are not, for example, back at the situation of St John Ogilvie being hanged at Glasgow Cross.
And why a sad day for Scotland?
The worldwide coverage cannot be seen in any way as positive. And it is not a positive story. The gleeful reaction of some who are happy to manipulate the story for their own ends does not help the country either (though those are the ways of politics, and this is political).
Scotland is receiving coverage all around the world, and not positive – from the Sydney Morning Herald to the New York Times. From Santiago to Tokyo.
First Minister Alex Salmond, of whom I am not always the biggest fan, made a fine statement yesterday. He said:-
“None of us know the outcome of the investigation but I have found him to be a good man for his church and his country.”
“It would be a great pity if a whole lifetime of work was lost.”
The Cardinal was a leading figure on the world stage and one representing Scotland. Whenever Scotland loses a voice able to speak to the world, it diminishes our influence.
As I said, yesterday was a sad day. However it offers the chance for a positive to be made of what has happened. In the same way as a new Pontiff will inherit the Shoes of the Fisherman, a new Archbishop will take up position in Edinburgh. The new Archbishop will be chosen by the new Pope, and therefore Scotland will be amongst the first places to feel the active influence of Benedict’s successor.
And finally, the Cardinal will be in the prayers of many throughout Scotland today, as indeed will those who have accused him. May God’s grace be upon them all.
Posted by Paul McConville