Graham Spiers: Man of faith left in an impossible position

Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Picture: Greg Macvean
Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Picture: Greg Macvean
Share this article
Have your say

CRITICS of Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s position on gay marriage have got this principled man so wrong.

I can see it has been another easy week in the business of abusing and ridiculing Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the father of Scotland’s Catholic community. In the pastime of mocking religion and religious figures in my country, O’Brien effortlessly leads the way in the custard-pie stakes.

The sorry subject, as ever, is that of gay marriage. The cardinal holds a view on this which, as it happens, is wholly opposed to my own: he detests the notion, and deplores the road that the Scottish Government is embarked upon, which is to have a gay marriage bill forthcoming by the end of the year, and same-sex marriages legal in Scotland by 2015.

Although I intellectually disagree with him, my admiration for O’Brien grows with an almost equal fervour with every passing week.

He is a strong and resolute Christian man. He is a spiritual leader of deep empathy and understanding. He is, according to those who know him, a warm and engaging character, qualities which I’ve no doubt sprang from his pre-celebrity years of humble parish work in places such as Cowdenbeath, Kilsyth and Bathgate among others.

But, more than anything, O’Brien is a man of spiritual conviction. This is an outmoded and lampooned position to adopt in 2012, which no doubt is one reason why he goes against the grain with so many of the blogosphere satirists these days.

His position on gay marriage is where I believe the cardinal is most misrepresented. It is absurd to label him a “bigot” or a “homophobe”, as his critics frequently do. Both of these phrases imply a hatred or contempt for someone simply due to their creed or sexuality. Well, if anyone thinks Keith O’Brien is capable of adopting such a position, they clearly don’t understand him.

What this church leader detests is not people, but ideas. On gay marriage, yes, he has open loathing for the notion of same-sex couples being shacked up, even more so when it is assisted by the state. But this is because he believes it drives a coach and horses through the very heart of Christian doctrine.

The foundation stone of any Christian doctrine is the Bible, and on this score O’Brien has every right to stand up for what he believes.

Indeed, amid the vagaries and vicissitudes of biblical interpretation, he may well be right on the subject of biblical authority and same-sex relationships.

The infallibility of scripture is another game entirely but, from what we have in the pages of the Bible, there is a copious amount from which O’Brien and others may cite while offering their resistance to same-sex relationships.

What is O’Brien, if he believes in the sacred word, to do? Simply ignore it? He finds himself grossly out of step with the progressive, intellectual mood of modern Britain – although, intriguingly, not with ordinary Britons themselves – so should he simply allow his beliefs to be submerged beneath the rubble of modern values? Well, alas for his detractors, he’s not for that at all.

Yes, O’Brien uses fairly tart language in this debate. He has called same-sex marriage “grotesque” and has even likened homosexuality to slavery, although his intended analogy there was not as it was widely reported.

At these and other O’Brien outbursts, I’ve had to laugh at some of the indignation of commentators. We live in an age, do we not, of sharp debate and polemic and the use of fairly prickly language in our marketplace of ideas? But what happens when someone like O’Brien uses similarly brisk language? Why, the thick-skinned bloggers and big media players on our stage suddenly turn into a bunch of ballet critics, appalled and simpering at the cardinal’s nerve at playing rough with rough. Well, good on him, I say.

The great danger in this debate is to disparage able and humane men like Keith O’Brien as “bigots” or “homophobes” simply because of their intellectual views. In fact, O’Brien is a follower of Jesus first and a Roman Catholic second – it is a rule of thumb that applies to all Christians, of whatever denomination. As such, the suggestion that O’Brien could dislike or detest outsiders or minorities in our society is quite a calumny. For any Christian, that would count as the greatest dereliction of their faith.
One of the ironies of this current mood of O’Brien-bashing is that, throughout his previous life as a teacher and parish priest, he was often viewed as, if not liberal on homosexuality, then certainly compassionate towards the subject.

Even when he rose to prominence among his church’s leaders, O’Brien would often resist some of the more rabid gay-bashing that goes on across the Christian Church, such as when he rebuked those who suggested a gay man or woman should not hold a teaching job in a Catholic school.

O’Brien’s decades of pastoral work appear to testify to a man rich in understanding of the human condition. You will find few, if any ordinary parishioners whom he has served who would be able to testify to this man’s ability to hate. On the contrary, he is a figure of agape, of love.

I’m with Patrick Harvie, MSP, and many others on this question – I think same-sex marriage should be legalised in Scotland, because it would speak of a modern and civilised country. On the question of Christianity and homosexuality, I accept that the debate is more complex, and that the Church is floundering to form a united voice on the subject.

However, what I reject is the castigation of a decent and impressive Church leader, simply because he refuses to abandon his principles. O’Brien is that man in Scotland, standing foursquare against what he views as a modern ill-wind.