Cardinal O’Brien – Much more than one man’s tragedy

Cardinal Keith O'Brien

I remember, very clearly, my father’s reaction to me coming out. His voice was soft as he told me that I was still his son and that he’d continue to love me. I felt great relief. He then looked straight at me, and said in a very firm, level tone that I wouldn’t be able to take communion in church again.

This last remark left me feeling confused. I reminded him that I hadn’t accompanied him and my mother to the Catholic church they attended every Saturday evening for some years. He responded by saying that this didn’t matter – I’d never be able to return to it if I acted upon on my ‘homosexual desires.’ At this point I felt it circumspect not to push my luck and point out that I’d already enjoyed the company of men – somewhat rampantly.

What my father alluded to in this conversation, 17 years ago, was the kind of silence and denial of innate feelings that the Catholic church has thrived upon for centuries. It summed up the way that he, and so many like him, were brought up and brainwashed in Catholic boarding schools across the world – dark, forbidding places where both the love and fear of God was instilled with fiery lashes of the cane.

This is also the world that Cardinal Keith O’Brien, former head of the Scottish Catholic church, comes from. Indeed, O’Brien can be seen as its ultimate product. For decades he’s hidden his sexual desires, indulging in a secret life characterised by subjugation of feelings and a torrent of self-loathing.  His very public downfall is, some have claimed, the definition of a ‘tragedy.’

Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine that gay priests (it’s estimated that up to 40% of clergy are gay) watching their leader’s disgrace could feel anything other than the extreme emotions that come with viewing a tragedy – sorrow, may be, but also, undoubtedly fear. When their fellow priests start breaking ranks and telling tales on their superiors’ sexual proclivities it’s always going to get a little hot under those ecclesiastical robes.

For centuries the Church has been a safe haven for gay men. It’s been the place in which they can seek refuge from feelings that, as children, they don’t understand, and an establishment which then tells them, as teenagers, that they’re sinners, unless they sign up for a lifetime of celibacy in the priesthood. It’s the blessed get out of jail free card that weak, damaged men have been looking for.

My sympathies go out to these men. The personal repercussions are huge: to live in a pit of shame and self-hatred, with only the anachronistic tomes of the gospels for some respite, must be hell on earth. Celibacy, if exulted in the past, is increasingly impossible to maintain in a modern culture that glorifies excessive sexual consumption above almost everything else.

As a gay man who was brought up to respect and fear the Catholic church’s doctrines there’s much that I can understand about these repressed men. I’ve seen how the church’s warped thinking and rigid power structure can decimate a person’s sense of identity. I also appreciate how difficult it is to extricate yourself from the religion’s dogma once you’ve been taken into its fold.

Cardinal O’Brien’s vehement bigotry is the result of such conditioning. Like many older priests he joined the church at a time when the world was more hostile to gay people, when it was illegal to be gay. Hypocrisy was always destined to be his fate – what else can come from leading a double, hidden existence? He made a choice to give his life to god at an early age, possibly an understandable choice given the era he came from.

And yet, as much as I understand the genesis of his behaviour and recognise the demons that he is clearly battling with, I am unable to join others in feeling pity for him.  I am unable to feel sorrow for a man who went on to repeatedly make another, intrinsically selfish choice – to use the privilege of a public profile to potentially destroy the lives of vulnerable, young gay people who were impressionable to his homophobic bile. Moreover, despite all those years at Sunday school, I have no inclination to forgive a man who now refuses to summon the humility to make a direct apology to the people he systematically and viciously abused.

As O’Brien skulks off to the sidelines he leaves the Catholic Church in crisis. No further proof is needed to show that the institution is built upon a bed of dishonesty and arrogance. There is nowhere else for it to go. Its credibility has been shot to pieces and it has been compromised on every conceivable level.

The real tragedy from the O’Brien affair, however, is not that of one lonely, twisted man. It is much bigger than that – it is the tragedy of an institution that in harbouring the emotionally broken has given itself a mandate to wreak havoc on the psyches of others. What is required now is a process of renewal – a complete overhaul of this defunct, immoral organisation. Nothing less than this is acceptable.

Words: Alex Hopkins

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