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.