IT IS, without doubt, the strangest of times to be Catholic in Scotland, but I would argue not necessarily the most disheartening if you’re liberal like me and desperate for change.
I know that there will be many traditional church-goers who feel cast adrift by Keith O’Brien’s resignation and bewildered by the allegations that have been made against him, and I have some sympathy for them.
If you are a parishioner who looked to him for spiritual guidance; who listened and invested in his and other Church leaders’ increasingly strident views on issues such as gay marriage, then you would, of course, be justifiably distressed by suggestions that he himself had engaged in “inappropriate behaviour” with other men.
Though O’Brien contests the allegations, made by three priests and a former priest, the very fact that they have been made will be enough to leave ordinary worshippers wondering what on earth is going on at the heart of religious life.
The confusion of such Catholics – which began with Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation – is likely to be exacerbated by the fact that the Church in Scotland has been left effectively rudderless, without a pope, a cardinal or even, in my own diocese, a bishop to provide any kind spiritual direction or guidance.
This sense of abandonment will, no doubt, have been exacerbated by the complete disappearance of high-profile Church spokesmen such as Peter Kearney and John Deighan from the public eye in the days after the story broke, and by the fact that the bishops in a number of other dioceses have been weakened by age or ill health.
It is the biggest crisis for the Church in Scotland since the reformation, says historian Tom Devine.
However, every crisis also provides an opportunity. And for me, personally, this latest one feels less like a disaster than a catalyst for self-reflection and renewal.
On one level, of course, I share in the communal sadness; if the allegations about O’Brien are true, then they reveal a man so at conflict with himself, that he spent his life espousing a set of values which ran contrary to his. Some will, quite rightly, call this hypocrisy and point to the damage it has wrought on people who have been made to feel ashamed about their own sexuality.
But it is possible to argue that O’Brien, too, is a victim of a Church which, back in the day, took prepubescent boys into seminaries and moulded them to its purposes, leaving them nothing to fall back on but its teachings.
Mostly, however, I feel quite optimistic about the situation. Like other Catholics who feel a disconnect with the hierarchy, I have been so angry for so long about the hate-filled bile that has been propagated in my name, that I have been on the brink of walking away from the Church.
But now it feels as if the bubble of self-importance that the Church in Scotland has inhabited has finally burst and that there might be hope for a better future.
After a decade in which a succession of leaders have been given free rein to pontificate on social issues, casting judgment on others while wilfully ignoring their own failures, this upheaval must surely kick-start a period of
soul-searching. While the Church has been able to pass off previous assaults on its integrity as motivated by sectarianism or secularism – and oh, how it has revelled in its own martrydom – the latest attack has come from within.
Its self-confidence shaken by claims which, if true, make a mockery of the morality it has tried to impose on others, the Church in Scotland has no choice now but to examine its own conscience.
First of all, as others have pointed out, the Church must look at how it treats the complainants. If it tries to ostracise them, to sweep their allegations under the carpet as it has done in the past, then it will never regain the trust of its own followers, never mind society at large.
But it must also look at how its very rigidity conspires to create a climate that makes sex scandals more likely. The cardinal himself started the conversation about enforced celibacy, a state which many believe runs counter to human nature and thus encourages “inappropriate behaviour” , however you define it.
With any luck, his resignation, will lead to fresh discussion on all sorts of other issues which have hitherto been closed down – issues such as divorce, abortion, women priests and, of course, gay marriage.
My hope is that the current state of insecurity will make conservative Catholics rethink their judgmentalism and give liberal Catholics more confidence to stand up and be counted; and that together we might embark on a less prescriptive, more tolerant future.
I’m not naive. On a global scale, O’Brien’s resignation will make little impact. With a mere 660,000 Catholics in Scotland (out of 1.2 billion worldwide) the recent upset will be nothing more than an annoying fly to be swatted away from the face of the Vatican in advance of the conclave.
But if it could usher in an era of greater humility in Scotland; if the intemperate voices could become a little more temperate; if the Church’s leaders could begin to ask themselves if they are really following the example of Christ when they rail against the likes of gay marriage, then that would be something.
My optimism is not based on nothing. When I took my place in church on Sunday, I braced myself for another exercise in self-justification. But the priest who said mass seemed weary rather than truculent.
All the usual bombast had vanished. Where in the past, I have listened with gritted teeth to sermons placing the blame for the Church’s ills at the feet of secular society or the media – anywhere, in fact, but at its own – this time the message was more positive. As the cardinals gather to choose a successor to Pope Benedict, the priest said, we should be praying for guidance on the best way forward.
I’m paraphrasing here, because I wasn’t taking notes, but the gist of it was that as we stand on the threshold of a new era, we should be asking ourselves which vestiges of Church’s past were worth keeping and which we ought to shed.
As I said, I’m not naive. It was only one priest. And it was a subtle shift in tone, not a dramatic U-turn. But it was enough for me to decide to stay put and see what happens – for the time being at least.