Tag Archives: Catholic Church

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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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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