Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s recent admission of sexual misconduct has led many people to call him a hypocrite, not least those offended by the uncompromising and disrespectful stance he took last year on same sex marriage within the Catholic Church.
The wider response has been of mixed emotions, including sadness, anger, disappointment, and disgust. Disillusionment with Catholicism may not be too far behind. But it is worth pausing for a moment to think about this situation before passing judgement. It is too important to ignore.
In today’s society we are continually bombarded with information. Most of it is just opinion that makes some people wealthy, and other people bankrupt, some people revered, and others dishonoured. But most of the time it is just opinion that speaks to something in us, and rapidly gathers momentum. More often than not it takes us off in the wrong direction and we lose the opportunity to address important problems.
As a result, we are often far too quick to accept what other people tell us as fact and arrive at unfair and unwarranted conclusions. Sometimes we are inexorably dragged in this direction because certain opinions carry some of the sensationalist impact we have been trained to crave these days, and other times because they appear to provide the perfect ammunition to criticise individuals whose ideologies we strongly oppose.
But is there a more sympathetic way of thinking about the personal crisis of Keith O’Brien that would allow us to dig a bit deeper into his personal psychology in order to shed some light on one of the core problems in the Catholic Church, whilst still acknowledging that his actions were completely wrong and emotionally damaging to the people involved?
We understand from Keith O’Brien’s own confession that he recognises his behaviour fell short of the standards expected of him in his role within the Catholic Church. We do not know the full detail. Perhaps we do not want to know it. But I think the key to understanding him may be that his admission is retrospective in nature.
The reason why I think this is key is that it is perfectly possible to subscribe to a set of general beliefs, yet occasionally behave in a manner that would appear to be inconsistent with holding one or more of them, without it necessarily being the case that you have made a clear and rational judgement, at that precise moment in time, that your behaviour is right or wrong. Often that clarity comes after the event.
We need to take account of the fact that there may be an element of psychological and physical compulsion in this type of situation that overrides the rational links between some of our beliefs and our actions, resulting in behaviour that others would immediately describe as hypocritical because of their third person perspective or simply their preferred agenda.
Perhaps Keith O’Brien does subscribe to the view that acts of a homosexual nature are immoral and that it is wrong for anyone to abuse the power of their position. But perhaps he also felt psychologically and physically compelled on certain occasions to act in a certain way towards other males, who happened to be young priests under his watch. Perhaps this led him to take whatever desperate steps were required to conceal this information from the public domain.
Whatever the case may be, I think we need to exercise a degree of caution when arriving at the conclusion that this makes this type of behaviour hypocritical; at least, it may not be intentionally so. Natural human drives which have been suppressed for too long will eventually find their outlet; regrettably, they do not always do so in the most appropriate manner. It depends on many contextual factors and they are typically immune to rationalisation.
This is not to condone Keith O’Brien’s actions. Not in the slightest. Nor is it to suggest that his actions have not undermined the credibility and moral authority of the Church. They have. It is simply to say that there are occasions in which we can be too quick to make judgements about other people that fail to take into account the complexities of their inner lives.
In saying this, I think it is necessary to recognise that the true tragedy of this situation consists, not so much in the damage to the credibility and moral authority of the Church; but in the emotional and psychological damage caused to the victims of Keith O’Brien’s behaviour. The Church will move on. His victims and others like them may not.
The importance of clarity here is that it may eventually have some bearing on how the Catholic Church decides to reform itself. There may be a painful recognition that follows this crisis. It may be that it is time for the Catholic Church to accept that certain of its beliefs do not fit with some natural truths about human beings, and that it is infinitely more damaging to continually cover up the consequences of this fact, than change in a way that would have avoided situations like this happening within the Church in the first place.