Cardinal O'Brien and beyond: the crisis in the Catholic Church

By Simon Barrow
February 25, 2013

Britain's most senior Catholic leader, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, will now not take part in the conclave to chose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, having been forced to resign early by allegations of "inappropriate conduct" made to the Vatican by several priests, both now retired and still serving.

It would be wrong to prejudge the specific issues and charges involved, but in a fast-paced, media-driven culture where comment precedes reflection that is the almost unavoidable tendency.

Yesterday, faithful Catholics outside St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh were pronouncing that Cardinal O'Brien, being a good man and a good Catholic, had to be innocent. Meanwhile, a slew of other commentators, angry at the Church's cover-up of abuse and staunch opposition to homosexuality, are already speaking as if he was guilty.

Cardinal O'Brien's outspokenness, moral certitude and sometimes overbearing public manner (which those who know him say belies considerable personal likeableness) has done him few if any favours in his moment of crisis. Judgemental sounding words make good soundbites when the judgers are accused.

All of this misses the real point, however. Irrespective of the guilt or otherwise of one man, it is the culture of the Church as a whole -- its secrecy, bureaucracy, autocracy, infighting, unaccountability and repressive instincts around sexuality -- which is once again under severe judgement here. This is not to minimise the importance of what Cardinal O'Brien may or may not have done, less still to push aside the voices of those who have brought these conduct concerns to light. It is, however, to recognise that what is being discussed in this particular case is part of a much wider pattern that simply will not go away through force of rhetoric among the Church's many advocates or detractors.

One of those making allegations against Cardinal O'Brien, recorded this weekend in The Observer, has spoken of endemic hierarchy and closedness as a "dark side" to what he still regards as a "beautiful institution". The holding together of tendencies towards both good and ill, corporately and personally, is vital here. The idea that the Church (or any of the other institutions implicated in abuse and misconduct, including music schools, parliament, corporations and the media) is either unremittingly evil or overwhelmingly innocent cannot be borne out by any fair examination of the facts. Self-delusion and self-righteousness are two sides of the same soiled coin.

Yet what happens, when allegations and denials fly in cases like that of the Cardinal, is that people inside and outside these institutions are usually thrown into immediate postures of blunt defence or instant assault. Such stances are, in themselves, products of the very siege mentality that needs to give way to openness and healthy challenge, so that the structural and ideological habits that create a culture where abuse can go underground are able to be changed.

There can be no doubt that the greatest burden of action here lies on the Catholic Church itself, both locally and worldwide. Those most deeply embedded within the institution are disastrously prone to identify tradition with fixity, critique with ill-will, and theological fidelity with top-down prescription. Part of the disease that needs sweeping clean is the idea that anyone who suggests anything else is to be dismissed as an aggressor, assailant or liberalising secularist.

In fact it was the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a long and loyal servant of the Vatican, and a one-time papal contender, who proclaimed in his dying words to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in August 2012 that the Church is "200 years out of date" and needs to face up to root and branch change.

He spoke not as an anti-Catholic, but as a man of faith and hope, and he acknowledged issues around abuse as definitive of what was wrong. The Church's attitude to women, to families, to divorce, to AIDS and contraception, to transparency, to bureaucratic deference and to many other matters needed rethinking in terms of the overall message of the Christian Gospel, Cardinal Martini declared forthrightly. He wanted a conciliar process to address these matters, but was thwarted and then fell ill.

So where do we go from here? The Christian message is that in the company of Christ the 'wounded healer' (Henri Nouwen), fate can be transformed into destiny, suffering into hope, and death-dealing into life-giving. For this reason, it is the voices of the marginalised, the excluded and the victimised who should be listened to first and foremost, in order that the Catholic Church (and all our churches) can recover the ability to reform itself as a fit vehicle for the Christian message of love, grace and justice in the twenty-first century.

Without the willingness to contemplate a sea-change of this kind, the Catholic Church, in particular, will continue to lose respect, trust, loyalty and adherence on a massive scale. The haemorrhaging of support in Europe and North America is already enormous. Worldwide, it is population growth that is holding up the apparently buoyant global figures of 1.3 billion faithful. But that trend will not prevail into the next century. At stake is not just the reputation of one senior Cardinal, or of the Catholic Church in Scotland and in Britain, but the very integrity and capacity of the Church worldwide.

Also on Ekklesia: Cardinal O'Brien, Oscar Pistorius and 'standing still in the Light', by Jill Segger -


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A member of the Scottish Episcopal Church with strong Anabaptist/Mennonite leanings, he has worked at a Catholic university college in the past, as well as within the ecumenical movement. He has a long-standing interest in, and appreciation for, Catholic spirituality and liturgy, alongside the peace and justice traditions of the Catholic Church.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.