AS THE shock waves from the resignation of Cardinal O’Brien resonate round the world, it would be a brave man who was prepared to predict how the Catholic Church could dig itself out of the deep hole into which it has got itself stuck.
The situation now could hardly be worse, and we may only know the half of it. The sudden and unexpected focus on Cardinal O’Brien is only the latest in a series of damaging news stories surrounding the Vatican.
It is credibly stated that what finally persuaded Pope Benedict to resign was a report he received detailing the way the Catholic Church’s central government had become beset by factions and infighting, with allegations of financial corruption in very high places still not properly responded to.
One allegation stands out from the media reporting we have seen so far: that within the Vatican itself, there is a group of homosexual clergy whose private lives run entirely contrary to church teaching – in other words, who are actively gay, including attending gay bars and clubs.
That takes on extra significance, and will come as an extra shock to the faithful, because the Catholic Church has embarked on a high-profile international campaign against gay marriage wherever the issue is a live one politically; including, of course, Scotland.
Implicit in that campaign is disapproval of homosexuality itself, which the Vatican treats as “intrinsically disordered” – that is to say, sinful – or, to use the even more blunt language of the late Cardinal Winning of Glasgow, “perverted”. That is not a popular line with lay Catholics, however – witness the fact that more than half the Catholic MPs at Westminster recently voted in favour of gay marriage legislation. So, even within the Church, homosexuality has become highly controversial. Things are in flux.
At least four of the cardinals who have said they will take part in the election of the next pope have been damaged by scandal relating to their mishandling of cases of child abuse by priests, and have so far resisted calls to stand down from taking part in the conclave on account of it.
In the most serious case, Cardinal Roger Mahony, of Los Angeles, has actually been stripped of his public duties by his successor, on account of his participation in a systematic cover-up of clergy abuse. That means the media spotlight will be focused on them whenever they appear in public.
To give him the credit he deserves, Cardinal O’Brien has shown that there is a better and more honourable way to conduct oneself when one’s reputation has been publicly called into question, even though he contests the allegations made against him by three priests and one former priest.
The reason he has given for his resignation – that he does not want to distract attention away from the papal conclave – would apply equally to these other cardinals under a cloud, who include, incidentally, the Irish primate Cardinal Sean Brady. So Cardinal O’Brien has given a lead, even at the worst moment of his entire career.
The Catholic Church has survived worse in its 2,000 years of history. The Church’s real strength lies not in its episcopal palaces but in its ordinary parishes, where real people know very well that even its most exalted leaders can and do go astray. They would prefer them not to, of course.
What they do not like is being lied to. That is why cover-ups are worse than the crimes they try to conceal. And why coming clean quickly is the only answer.
• Clifford Longley is a columnist with the Tablet and a former religion correspondent for the Times.