Michael Kelly: Cardinal’s crisis is not whole faith’s

Cardinal Keith O'Brien.  Picture:  Ian Rutherford
Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ALLEGATIONS against Keith O’Brien elicit more compassion than anger from Catholics. The Church faces far more important issues, writes Michael Kelly

I never realised that there were so many opinion formers who were Catholics. However, this week I’ve met them all traipsing in and out of radio and television studios pontificating on the sensation that has surrounded the resignation of Keith O’Brien as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, squeezed between the horsemeat horror and balloons in Egypt. For the few remaining conspiracy theorists, I should emphasise that I did not previously know them all to be Catholics, much less agree a party line with them to defend the Church. But I found a common thread among those gurus that I did manage to say a brief hello to as we passed each other on the way to and from the cameras.

There were no funereal tones or glum faces. This was to the grave disappointment of producers and the puzzlement of presenters, who clearly were expecting a flagellation of all things Roman. But the O’Brien scandal is not the crisis for the Church that the media is portraying. The main reaction I have had from “ordinary” Catholics is one of sorrow and compassion for all of those involved, which is exactly what one would expect from any Christian. There is, of course, shock and disappointment and some anger. But most are able to distinguish quite clearly between the dogma and doctrines of the Church, which we are all obliged to follow, however errantly and despite human frailty.

Indeed, there was more reaction to Cardinal O’Brien’s call last Friday to end celibacy in the priesthood. That was not a personality issue, but an attempt to revisit a Church tradition.

Questions are also being raised in the parishes about the timing of the alleged victims’ claims of “inappropriate behaviour”. It is well understood that when individuals have been the subject to some kind of trauma it can take decades before they are prepared to talk about it publicly. But having waited 30 years, it is fair to wonder why they did not wait another few weeks before going to the press. If their concern was of another Vatican cover-up, waiting six months after the matter had been raised with the papal nuncio in London and then revealing the complaint would have strengthened their case.

Again, these men are priests and a former priest, with presumably great concern for the welfare of the Church. Did they not appreciate the additional damage caused by going public at this particular time? It does seem by their approach they have sacrificed the anonymity they would have been guaranteed by an internal Church investigation. Now that the accused has been punished before a trial, in justice they must come forward with the details of the allegations. A full public, independent inquiry must be set up by the Church, preferably under a Scottish judge. Their names will inevitably come out.

This issue has serious aspects, but many of us are crisis-weary and cynical enough to know that, while individuals rise and fall, the Church will continue relentlessly on its God-ordained path. This is not the crisis facing the Church in Scotland. The only commentator who has made a serious case that it is, Tom Devine, is a historian whose skills are more suited to deconstructing events well in the past as opposed to fast-moving current affairs. I do not see the evidence for dramatising it, as he has done. From the perspective of 50 years hence, this will not be viewed as a crisis. “The worst crisis since the Reformation”? The worst crisis since Bishop Roddy Wright’s illegitimate child, perhaps.

There are challenges facing the Church that could be added up to make a crisis. There is the secularisation of society, which the Church is fighting in vain. There are the declining congregations. There is the lack of vocations to the priesthood. There is the number of priests who no longer feel able to stay the course. These are the long-term trends that must be addressed.

To do that, the Church in Scotland needs the strong leadership that it has long lacked. To supply this would require an unprecedented and controversial decision. Given the diminishing number of priests, the pool of talent for high office is too shallow. A new team of leaders must be imported. The Church is universal, so the world is its oyster as far as recruitment is concerned. Fundamental administrative reform is necessary. The selection process for candidates for the priesthood both here and in other parts of the world has clearly failed to weed out unsuitable candidates. That and the processes for promotion must be reviewed. Openness must be the watchword. There are probably too many dioceses, certainly too many parishes.

It is these kinds of changes that it is realistic to expect will flow from the current soul-searching. What will not happen and what should not happen is any shift in the Church’s teaching on fundamental issues of faith and morals. Dani Garavelli in yesterday’s Scotsman wrote of her hope that liberal voices within the Church will lead a discussion that will allow it “to embark on a less prescriptive, more tolerant future”.

A change in tone is possible. But any Catholic expecting a revision of the positions on social issues, such as divorce, abortion and gay marriage, are going to be disappointed, because they are wrong even to ask for such a review. Dogma, not the failings of its leaders, is the essence of the Church. The two must not be confused.

Without its unchanging view on these and other issues, the Church would not be the Church. Ms Garavelli correctly identifies the alternative – walk away. There are plenty of other brands offering such liberalism. We have seen the terrible confusion and contradiction in other Christian churches that have attempted to modernise their message to suit the public’s tastes.

Christ faced precisely the same confrontation when the public could not take the strength of his medicine and fell away, leaving him with his apostles. St Peter’s response to Christ’s asking if they were going as well, is the only answer this commentator can offer fellow Catholics disgusted and troubled by recent revelations: “Where can we go?”