Tag Archives: Cardinal Keith O’Brien

Last Thoughts On Cardinal Keith O’Brien

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.

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The Enduring Importance of the Catholic Church, Despite Everything

It is difficult to know what effect Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation and the allegations made against him will have on the Catholic Church. According to Professor Tom Devine, the Catholic Church is now ‘facing its gravest crisis since the Reformation’.


In a respectful article, Tom Devine expresses sadness and concern for Keith O’Brien, the man; but also points out that there are difficult questions to be answered if Catholicism in Scotland is to move on from what Devine describes as a ‘tragic affair’.

But he also refers to the ‘powerful resilience of a global faith’ that has endured for more than two millennia as the reason why the Catholic Church needs to be seen as being so much more than its hierarchy of leaders; it is this type of perspective that is easily lost in the midst of this type of crisis and why the Catholic Church will survive.

It is worth thinking about what this powerful resilience consists in and whether the perspective that Devine calls for may contain a valuable lesson about the enduring importance of the Catholic Church when compared to some of the other deeply flawed institutions within our society today.

Granted there are major problems within the structures that govern the Catholic Church. That fact cannot be denied. Nonetheless there would appear to be something deep within every human being that drives us to seek comfort and purpose through each other – and for many people across the world this cannot be understood independently of having faith in God.

It is this deeply human set of emotions and commitments that will endure when the structures and hierarchies of the Catholic Church are scrutinised, criticised and challenged. Despite this, it is dangerous to be complacent and recent events should serve as a wake up call.

Thinking about this in perspective also reminds us that when we place our trust in individuals in whom we actually know very little about, and in the institutions they represent, there is a tendency to assume that their entire being will always be consistent with our expectations. Situations like this tell us it is not. They too are human, all too human, and are liable to make some very bad mistakes.

It is not just the Catholic Church. We have recently witnessed the slow and painful unravelling of many of the highly regarded institutions that define our society. In some cases, we are finally starting to recognise that these institutions are nothing more than monuments to a compelling story that probably never was.

This unravelling has not only opened our eyes to a whole series of uncomfortable truths about the characters in whom we entrust the safe keeping of our affairs; it has also forced an abrupt change in our perception of some of these institutions, from that which supports everything that is decent, dutiful and democratic, to that which blocks our view from the deceptions and duplicities permitted to occur unchallenged in the background.

Across the worlds of journalism, television, banking, policing, sport, politics and industry, we have encountered this unravelling in spectacular form, from faceless traders to brazen celebrities to executive figureheads; yet for the most part, in spite of this, we will have no option but to carry on regardless; business as usual.

The survival of our society in its existing shape depends on our continued commitment to the traditions most of us were unconsciously trained into from the earliest opportunity, a commitment which will probably still endure, but in a much weaker form.

Whichever shape the Catholic Church takes in generations to come – and it obviously needs to eradicate its fundamental flaws – one certainty is that its underpinning faith will endure; there is something far deeper, more powerful and more global within the latter, than there is within our diminishing commitments to the many other flawed institutions that prop up the rest of our society.

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Jumping on the ‘Bigot!’ Bandwagon

The popular misuse of a word can have a transformational effect on how we think about the situation in which it has been used.

This is particularly evident when we begin to use certain words with negative intent because we have been subconsciously prompted in that direction by those around us in the media, on social networking sites, in our homes and on the street.

It has become fairly routine in recent times to throw around words like ‘bigot’, ‘racist’ and ‘sectarian’, with the apparent goal of sensationally shaming those individuals in our society who continue to indulge in the types of behaviour the majority of us have long since departed from.

Gay rights charity Stonewall named Cardinal Keith O’Brien ‘Bigot of the Year’ at its annual awards, referring to his attack on the idea of gay marriage as a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right. Whilst many would feel that O’Brien’s views are offensive and out of touch with modern society, others may feel that it would be too quick and too simplistic to use the term ‘bigot’ in this context.

Whether it is correct to use the term ‘bigot’ in reference to Keith O’Brien or not, this example highlights one of the difficulties we sometimes have in not letting vogue words like ‘bigot’ lead us down blind alleyways. The risk is that we begin to use these terms far too freely, without proper regard for the subtleties of context, and subsequently read more into situations than actually exists.

Failure to recognise this means that we are less likely to recognise the flaws in our own self-approved moral judgements, or when poor decisions have been taken to prevent the feared consequences of the new perception that has emerged.

In the case of Scottish football, new legislation was passed earlier this year to tackle offensive behaviour at football matches – with the unintended consequence of also creating a great deal of confusion around the use of terms like ‘racist’ and ‘sectarian’ in connection with singing traditional folk songs and other innocent celebrations of a group’s cultural origins.

This week an image was circulated around social networking sites of Neil Lennon’s upturned Celtic FC tracksuit collar. It happened to be green, white and gold. It happened to cause a silly reaction among some individuals who were intent on interpreting it as ‘sectarian’; another completely random, incorrect and sensationalist application of the term.

The increasing unease in English football at the moment surrounds the problem of racism on the pitch and in the stands. Whilst this appears to be a genuine problem that needs to be dealt with, there is also the danger that innocent individuals will find themselves being vilified in the media for comments or gestures that may have had no such intent.

We are rapidly progressing to the point where the significance of every utterance will be debated and every gesture will be under scrutiny. And more often than not, those who point their finger are just as prone to the types of behaviour they want to publicly shame by jumping on the ‘Bigot!’ bandwagon.

There are times when society finds itself on this bandwagon without understanding how it got there. Sometimes it is simply about the misuse of language; other times it is a conveniently popular hook on which to justify the abuse of individuals whom we have grown to dislike for completely different reasons.

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Redefining Reality: Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s Fear

Cardinal Keith O’Brien has recently expressed grave concerns about the UK Government’s proposal to legalise same sex marriage.

Among many other concerns, he is fearful that it would seriously undermine marriage as one of the most fundamental building blocks of our society.

He argues that not only would it be harmful for our physical, mental and emotional welfare, it would go so far as to redefine the very concept of marriage. Or in other words, it would effectively ‘redefine reality’ at the behest of a minority of activists.

He goes on to say that he is strongly opposed to the idea that any Government should have the power to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage, when the concept of marriage predates the existence of the State.

Whilst Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s worldview is difficult for many people to understand and relate to, as far as he is concerned (and there are many others who will completely agree with him), it is fully justifiable in terms of the particular spiritual outlook and deeply religious way of life in which he is immersed.

To an extent he has a point when he argues that ‘marriage’ is a religious as well as legal concept and that no Government has the right to interfere with its original meaning as defined by the Church.

However, where I think Cardinal Keith O’Brien goes wrong is that he argues as if legalising same sex marriage would be an unmitigated disaster. He presents his argument in a manner that is more likely to alienate people, than convince them of the necessity of his religious point of view.

He argues quite aggressively and dogmatically that the Government is trying to dismantle the concept of marriage to the detriment of society. But the patterns of human relationships he is most worried about, and which form part of the fabric of our society today, have always been there; it is just that government bodies, religious groups and social institutions have been shamefully slow in acknowledging and respecting that fact.

So it is not that the Government is trying to dismantle a concept; it is that the Government is simply trying to recognise that sometimes life is just not like that, and is actually trying to catch up with the way many people want to live their lives.

Many different types of relationship exist in society. Our willingness to recognise such differences in the public domain has improved slowly over time, to the extent that recognising a conceptual shift is now inevitable, and clearly not going to have the destabilising effect Cardinal Keith O’Brien fears.

Concepts are tools we use in making sense of our experiences. They shape our understanding of the world in which we live and are partly constitutive of the various relationships we form with each other.

To a large extent, the concepts we use in making sense of our position in the world, and in making sense of the people around us, define what we understand as reality. Concepts evolve, their use evolves, and the definition of the reality they create for us necessarily evolves at the same time.

In redefining the concept of marriage, we may well be redefining reality as Cardinal Keith O’Brien puts it. But perhaps if we did this, we would finally achieve the correct level of intellectual and emotional honesty, in which our concepts are used in accordance with the way in which many people, including some members of the Catholic Church, want to live their lives today.

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