Celibacy and Cardinal Keith O’Brien

The Scotsman reports here that disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien is still facing pressure from his accusers.

Three priests in the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh have asked Leo Cushley, the new archbishop, to pass on to the Holy See their written complaints which characterise O’Brien as a “sexual predator” who used his authority to compel them into “coercive” and “abusive” sexual relationships.

The priests, whose accusations led to the cardinal’s enforced retirement and disgrace last February, appear determined to force Pope Francis to make a final judgment.

From a human point of view these kinds of cases are extraordinarily difficult. They invariably end up as one person’s word against another.  In addition, our society is, on the one hand just about as sexually permissive as possible, and on the other hand, as thin skinned and touchy about abuse as possible. What is “sexual abuse” nowadays? Rubbing someone’s back? tousling their hair? Making suggestive comments? Or is it genital contact? What is “coercive” behavior? Flirting? Telling risqué jokes? Exerting emotional pressure?

I’m not excusing the Cardinal’s alleged behavior, but pointing out how difficult it is in such cases to get to the facts of the matter. Furthermore, the line between illegal behavior and indiscreet behavior needs to be recognized. If a churchman does something stupid or indiscreet it doesn’t mean it was illegal. It may not even have been against church law. The Cardinal was accused of making passes at young clergy or seminarians–usually when he was tipsy.

Even if Cardinal O’Brien’s behaviors were indiscreet rather than illegal, they indicate a continuing problem for the clergy–it is the problem of proper loving and affirming relationships.

It is easy to accuse the discipline of clerical celibacy: “These priests wouldn’t get drunk and make passes at young men if they weren’t so darned lonely, and they wouldn’t be so lonely if they were able to get married.”

Yes, but the problem is more complex than that. As a society we are still reeling from the fallout of the sexual revolution. For the last fifty years we have been trying to deal with the new reality that sexual activity needn’t involve babies. Consequently, homosexual behavior has become increasingly tolerated. As homosexual behavior has become more tolerated, the potential for natural male-male friendships has been eroded. With a male dominated profession like the Catholic clergy, borderlines are blurred and relationships that once would have been safely and conventionally masculine become sexualized.

Before the sexual revolution when men felt affection for one another most of them would not have allowed that affection to be expressed sexually. It simply wasn’t acceptable and most men–if they felt that desire–would have turned away from it as “not manly”. Society was so disapproving that it was unacceptable. Now not so, and once a man opens the door to that possibility he opens Pandora’s Box. Among the Catholic clergy the possibility of a sexual relationship was too often admitted and even celebrated.

In addition to this, because of increased mobility and other social pressures, the local extended family has broken down. Before the mid-sixties people grew up in a local community and they experienced a high level of social interaction, affection and acceptance within that local community and extended family. Take for example, an Italian American boy growing up in Philadelphia before the 1960s. He would have been surrounded by a large extended family, a supportive sub culture and religion. To be a priest in that environment was not so lonely. He had his family and friends for affection and companionship. He also had a parish and diocesan family. This family network also helped to keep him on the straight and narrow. He was less likely to fall into sin that would disgrace him and his family, and his network would help to keep a natural check on him. If he misbehaved Uncle Louie or Monsignor would have a word with him. All of that is gone.

Consequently our celibate priests exist too often in a no man’s land. He is stuck in a parish without close friends at a distance from whatever family he might have. Celibacy is a contributing factor to the priest’s loneliness, but it is not the only factor.

About Cardinal O’Brien–If he has done wrong, he should retire quietly. If he’s guilty he should resign his status as Cardinal. This should be backed up by disciplinary guidance from the Vatican.

But In the midst of all the vilification of Cardinal O’Brien I’m one who also feels sorry for the man. While we should be ashamed of such behavior we should also offer prayers for forgiveness. We should remember the disgrace and humiliation he feels and have some pity–remembering that any man who has stumbled and fallen is better than his greatest failures.

You, after all, would not want to be defined by your worst moments would you?

Finally, should we not learn from any man’s failure and disgrace? Should we not be humbled with him and say with a Lenten spirit, “If it weren’t for God’s grace and a bit of luck, that could be me?”

This is actually the strength and genius of the Christian faith–that we call on ourselves and others to repent. The first step of the Christian journey, is after all, the simple prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me a Sinner.”


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