The life and times of Cardinal Keith O’Brien

Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Picture: PA
Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Picture: PA
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THE resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien brings to an end more than a decade at the helm of the Scottish Catholic Church which began amid expectations he would prove a far less controversial figure than his predecessor, Thomas Winning, and ended with him characterised as a man who, if anything, managed to outdo him.

Born in Ballycastle, Co Antrim in 1938, Cardinal O’Brien arrived in Scotland as a primary school boy after his parents decided to emigrate to Clydebank after the war.

It has been said that the knowledge he was born outside Scotland always made him that much keener to display his Scottish patriotism later in life.

While at secondary school, his family moved again, this time to Edinburgh, beginning a 60-year association with the city.

He was ordained in 1965, and took up a job as a maths and science teacher in Fife. Full-time roles as a parish priest in Kilsyth and Bathgate followed before he served as spiritual director at St Andrew’s College, Drygrange, in the late 1970s, and then as rector of St Mary’s College, Blairs, the former junior seminary near Aberdeen from 1980 to 1985.

Then, at a relatively young age, he was nominated archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

The weekend’s allegations were all the more astounding as Cardinal O’Brien had a reputation as a popular figure within the Church, who enjoyed the pastoral job of attending to his flock.

“If I have any strengths, it is just being with people,” he once said. Notable successes included his work in the wake of the Roddy Wright scandal, when the then Bishop of Argyll and the Isles quit his post and announced he was living with a mother of three children.

Cardinal O’Brien took on the post of Administrator of the Diocese and made it his job to boost morale. His good-humoured, easy-going style – characterised by the broad grinning figure blessing congregations – has been a regular fixture in countless parishes across the country over the past 20 years. It meant that, as archbishop in the 1990s and early 2000s, the contrast between his personal warmth and the take-no-prisoners leadership of Cardinal Winning was keen.

They differed in other ways, too. Cardinal O’Brien was also gaining a reputation as a bishop of far more liberal leanings on many issues. This ensured he became the bête noire of conservative Catholic groups, whom he appeared to enjoy winding up. When Cardinal Winning died in 2001, and Cardinal O’Brien, as the senior Catholic bishop, took over, the expectation was that a new broom was coming.

It was an impression he cemented upon being created cardinal by John Paul II in October 2003, only the third such Scot to wear “the red hat” since the Reformation. Afterwards, in St Peter’s Square, he illustrated his patriotism – and a very keen eye for a good photo opportunity – by grabbing a saltire from a member of the crowd and 
waving it enthusiastically over his head. The picture was in many papers across Europe the following day.

Then, whether as liberal critics would have it, he was “got at” by the Vatican, or whether Cardinal O’Brien simply realised that his new job as cardinal required a more strident attack on what the Church views as the march of “aggressive secularism” in the West, he took up the same tabloid-friendly cudgels that Winning had relished swinging.

He was “no liberal”, he declared, not long after taking over. And so he proved it. A new bill on human embryos was denounced for legalising “Frankenstein” experiments and as a “monstrous” attack on human rights.

In 2007, he compared the rate of abortion to “two Dunblane massacres a day”. More recently, he said that gay marriage was a “madness” that was being “indulged” by politicians. The government’s plan was, he said, “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. The gay rights lobby group Stonewall awarded him its bigot of the year prize.

Cardinal O’Brien also seemed more than happy to wade into politics, noting prior to the 2007 Scottish elections that he would be happy for Scotland to become an independent country.

But the relationship with the SNP government would go on to cool considerably, not just as a result of gay marriage, but also over the Scottish Government’s anti-sectarianism efforts, another of the Cardinal’s favourite subjects, which, he claimed, failed to take into account the distinct grievances of Catholics in Scotland.

He never made the same effort to publicise other interests, such as his support of Sciaf (the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund). He made annual visits to the developing world to assess projects supported by the charity, including Rwanda, Congo, Ethiopia and Darfur. He also remained a fierce opponent of the nuclear submarines based at Faslane. In short, while his private and pastoral persona may have been very different, the headlines his comments generated entirely redefined him. The inevitable moniker – “Cardinal Controversy” – stuck.

Poor health in recent months has seen Cardinal O’Brien move to the sidelines. While still Scotland’s cardinal, the baton of leadership within the Church had already passed to Glasgow’s Archbishop Philip Tartaglia.

And last week, with retirement approaching, he presented another side to the camera, 
declaring the issue of priestly celibacy could be discussed again by a new pope, saying Church law on it was not “divine of origin”. For reformers within the Church, those comments only bring fresh frustration over why he was only speaking out now, upon retirement, as opposed to when it might have made a difference, prior to the last

In his statement yesterday, he acknowledged he may have mistakes. “Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended.”

But what he believes those failures are remains an enigma.