John Haldane: The Church can overcome

Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Picture: Getty
Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Picture: Getty
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“IF IT were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well, it were done quickly.” So speaks Macbeth of the murder of the king, but the words might well be self-applied by someone who finds themselves in the situation faced by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, when he learned of the news stories reporting accusations against him of inappropriate behaviour.

The circumstances could hardly be more dramatic: on Thursday the Pope abdicates and the process of electing a successor begins shortly thereafter. The situation is unprecedented (medieval “resignations” were entirely different) and the Church and the world have still not worked out quite what it means. At the same time, there is speculation about possible scandals within the Vatican itself, and complaints about the attendance at the Conclave of figures accused of failure in dealing with sexual abuse cases. Under these circumstances, to have the leading serving churchman from the British Isles turn up in Rome beneath a dark and heavy cloud would intensify the storm.

To his credit, the cardinal has understood all of this, no doubt feeling the deep irony of the fact of his imminent retirement, and in circumstances of ill-health, and he has done the right thing. Whether this is what the publicisers of the accusations hoped for in reporting the allegations now, and whether they will feel satisfied at the outcome I do not know, but it is hard not to ask, with the Romans, cui bono – who benefits?

Obviously, there is harm done to the Catholic Church at a time when it is already badly damaged by the litany of abuse accusations, and it leaves the Church in Britain without a voice in the deliberations that will take place in the conclave and without a vote in the papal election. That may matter because the Anglo-phone world is limited in its influence, notwithstanding the North Americans. Indeed, given the suspicion of US political power, and widespread opposition to its foreign policies, it is hard for the case for an Anglosphere candidate to be pressed by an American.

Yet, it might well be the case that what the Church now needs is the robust, clear-out, can-do style that would come with, say, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York or perhaps with Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney. Such choices were already unlikely as the Italians aspire to recover the papacy, and the developing nations of the southern hemisphere, where most of the world’s one billion plus Catholics live, hope to see one of their own elected. Given the tragedy of Cardinal O’Brien’s situation, the cause of an Anglo-pope may be further weakened.

Here in Britain, the Catholic Church has to reconcile itself to being a mere observer of events. In one sense, it was always thus – there has been no likely British candidate for the papacy since the restoration of the English and Scots hierarchies in the 19th century – but with the Archbishop of Westminster having had to wait longer than many had expected for his own cardinal’s hat, and with Archbishop O’Brien resolved not to exercise his right to attend, the sense of being out of things is intensified.

So far as Scotland itself is concerned, the Church has lost an impressive and well-liked leader, but – in all honesty – his powers have been diminishing as age and illness have taken their toll, and it was widely known that he sought to be relieved of the duties of office as soon as possible and to retire to a coastal parish.

He has already resigned the presidency of the Scottish bishops’ conference. Of course, it is one thing to leave office to the tunes of glory and another to pass from it to the accompaniment of a sombre lament; and the reality is that, whatever the outcome of the investigations set in chain by the accusations, Cardinal O’Brien’s life as a senior churchman is close to ending.

His fellow bishops are in shock, in part because, like Cardinal Winning before him, he brought a fullness of presence and presentation to the role of archbishop and then of cardinal, and with Archbishop Conti of Glasgow recently retired, it will be a while yet before any figure attains the level of visibility and audibility hitherto achieved by the leadership of the Scottish Catholic Church.

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia’s appointment to Glasgow was a good, and indeed overdue, decision, but he might have hoped to have a bit more time to work himself into the role. As it is, he has become the effective leader not only of Catholicism in the West of Scotland, but also of the Church across the country.

That may be no bad thing, in part requiring him to think broadly, but also raising the question of whether Scotland would not be best served by fewer bishops. It is also the case that others are near to or beyond the stage of due retirement, so in thinking of how to deal with the problem created by Archbishop O’Brien’s resignation, Rome may also skip a generation and appoint younger men.

I will not disadvantage them by naming them here, but I can think of several excellent priests who have grown up in the Church’s times of difficulty and are unburdened by nostalgia for the past, and certainly have no illusions that being a bishop in the modern day is, or ought to be, a decorative or lauded office.

The Church is in difficulties here, in Europe and in other parts of the developed world. The causes are in part self-inflicted, but it is also the case that that same “developed” world is in a process not so much of rapid secularisation as of rampant sexualisation. Indeed, it is regressing to the condition of untrained juvenilitude: materialistic, hedonistic and narcissistic. We want more, we want it now, we want it for ourselves, and we want it “because we’re worth it”.

The demand of the affluent west is for personal self-fulfilment, meaning getting what one wants on one’s own terms, without restriction of moral code and without regard to the possibility that our judgments are corrupted by wilfulness. The Christian message is one of hope and salvation, not from external environmental degradation but from internal corruption.

It is the business of all Christians to preach the gospel of salvation, while also teaching the necessity of it. One in six of the world’s population is a Roman Catholic. That Church is also the oldest institution in the western hemisphere. Its responsibilities are enormous and in recent times its failings have been all to evident.

Another blow has fallen upon the faithful, but maybe it will be the one to awaken them to the need to serve the Church rather than to assume they will be served by it. Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation will further sap the morale of clergy and laity alike, but it could also be a turning point, a time of new beginnings.

It is not fanciful to suppose this, for the people are there for the task, who can also encourage and inspire others to join it. Within a month, there will be a new pope and shortly thereafter there should be new episcopal appointments in Scotland not just to St Andrews and Edinburgh, but elsewhere. In the meantime, and whatever the accusations and the factors that lie behind them, it is hard not to feel for the figure who was until yesterday archbishop.

• John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and consultant to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture