When Cardinal Keith O’Brien intervened on the debate on same-sex marriage recently, he was fortunate he did not have to face a politician like Nicola Vendola.
Most politicians in Scotland were keen to avoid direct confrontation and if they did not duck for cover, they tiptoed around the cardinal as they usually do. This deference is partly due to respect but also naked political interest. They are afraid to alienate what they see as the “Catholic” vote.
Whether that still exists is another matter, but who is Vendola? Possibly the next prime minister of Italy, that’s who. He is a Catholic, as one might expect, but also happens to be openly gay. Hence, not so much a dilemma for only Cardinal O’Brien but also the Holy See in its homeland.
Recently, Vendola came out in support of the campaign No Coppie Di Serie B for equal rights for all Italian couples, including homosexuals, describing opposition to it as “scaremongering” from “the Middle Ages”.
He also reiterated recently he would be willing to be the centre-left candidate for prime minister in the 2013 general election. It would be foolhardy to write him off, as he has defied the odds throughout his career. A Demos poll last year showed him to be the “best-liked’ politician in Italy.
The former communist is a Catholic who has no trouble combining his faith and sexuality. “Catholicism is like my homosexuality, like my political beliefs”, he says “All these things are part of my identity.”
He was a founder of Arcigay, the main Italian gay rights association, and was elected a member of parliament in 1992. He made his name as a campaigner on the Italian parliament’s anti-mafia commission and as a champion of green energy, small businesses and co-operatives, women and immigrant rights, and youth unemployment.
In Italy’s first-ever primary election in 2005, Vendola beat the official candidate to win the centre-left’s nomination to stand for governor of Apulia region, in the heel of Italy. The official line was such a left-wing openly gay politician could not be elected in the conservative, rural south. But Vendola went on to beat Silvio Berlusconi’s candidate to become first left-wing governor of the region. In 2010 he won the centre-left’s primary again, with 67 per cent of the vote, and went on to increase his majority.
Since becoming governor he has worn a gold ring on his thumb given to him by a fisherman, to symbolise his marriage to the people, and has a diamond hoop in his ear. Named after San Nicola, the patron saint of Bari, he’s been called Nichi since a boy, in honour of then Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev. He grew up with a picture of Pope John XXIII on the wall next to one of Yuri Gagarin. He has always believed his politics and religion are complementary and described the Bible as “the most important book for a Communist like me”. Vendola is also aligned with the Pax Christi human rights movement in the Catholic Church. A charismatic speaker and thoroughly modern politician, he has used social media to combat the stranglehold the Berlusconi media has on Italy, and has more than half a million Facebook followers, more than any other politician in Europe. Vendola likes to add: “I have lots of nuns among my fans”.
He sees his sexuality as no impediment, and when he criticises the Church it is with respect, and he is careful not to denigrate the Pope.
“I do not want to battle with the Church. I just want to ask the Church, ‘Why with my love, my sex, the way that I live, why cannot I live in the sun?’ ”
The Berlusconi media launched a desperate attempt at character assassination, publishing a picture taken of him on a nude beach in 1979, but it backfired with the then prime minister mired not only in political and financial corruption but scandals involving call girls and accusations of sex with minors.
Berlusconi made a personal jibe at Vendola when he tried to excuse his own behaviour, saying: “It is better to love beautiful women than be gay”, to which Vendola replied: “Your jokes can’t amuse a country that’s exhausted, impoverished, scared, insecure and abandoned.”
As such sewage spilled out of the former prime minister’s office, the Church was judged to have turned a blind eye for too long to such “grotesque” and “immoral behaviour”.
Meanwhile Vendola’s high profile as an openly gay Catholic, especially if he becomes prime minster, is a challenge to the Church and not just in Italy.
In Scotland, the Church should realise that in recent times it has got an easy ride from both politicians and the media, compared with Italy, where there has always been a history of confrontation.
Today, Cardinal O’Brien is the most prominent and pre-eminent clergyman in Scotland. The status of the Catholic Church has never been higher since the Reformation, although ironically it has been at the expense of the Church of Scotland, whose role has diminished as the country has become more secular.
But the relative strength of Catholicism in Scotland is as cultural as it is religious. The history of the Irish diaspora and Scottish sectarianism has ensured the Catholic identity is more robust in the secular age than Presbyterianism.
Supposed Christian values on sexuality have also been derived from repressive societies throughout the ages rather than the gospels or teachings of Christ. Celibacy for the priesthood, introduced in the Middle Ages, is one obvious example. And while politicians are extremely wary of criticising the cardinal through fear of alienating the Catholic community, they should realise the days of the bloc vote are over.
The Church, though, still knows how to play the political card and has cowed Labour with attacks over “atheistic” values despite the party having more Catholics proportionately and numerically at every level – members, councillors, MSPs, MPs – than any other party.
Meanwhile, the SNP has assiduously courted the cardinal to eat into what it sees as the “Labour” Catholic vote.
The taint of sectarianism in Scottish life has also ensured politicians treated the Catholic hierarchy with sensitivity, as witnessed by the survival of Catholic schools.
But when Cardinal O’Brien stepped up onto the UK stage in the “same-sex marriage” debate it proved a bruising encounter, as the Catholic vote is not as sensitive an issue throughout Britain.
O’Brien’s use of terms such as “grotesque” and “immoral” was ill-judged and insulting to gay people, and would be better directed on an ethical level at Scottish banks and our financial elite rather than Scotland’s homosexual community. A better reflection of Christian values would be challenging more vigorously the morality of austerity economics and the effects on the family, the amorality of the City and globalisation.
With polls showing that 70 per cent opposed to the war in Afghanistan, the cardinal would be better served attacking political party leaders for what many Catholics find far more “grotesque” and “immoral” than same-sex marriage.
With the Church in its most exalted position since the Reformation, O’Brien is in danger of undermining its standing with an obsession with sexuality which many Catholics as well as non-Catholics see as deeply hypocritical and out of touch, especially with the recent history of child abuse and the Church’s systemic cover-up.
Ten countries currently have same-sex marriages, among them Argentina, Spain and Portugal, with many more considering introducing it. In deeply Catholic Argentina, polls showed 70 per sent of the population supported it.
In Holy Week, which has just passed – the most important in the Christian calendar – believers reflect on how Christ died for our sins. During that period, did the cardinal consider whether he is right to think most Catholics in Scotland believe same-sex marriage or homosexuality is a sin?
Meanwhile, someone like Vendola would be a good thing both for the Church and Scotland.