Monday, 25 February 2013

A cardinal sin?

Cardinal Keith O'Brien: emerging from the closet?
Back in March 2012, in an article for Catholic flagwaver the Telegraph, and having described the idea of marriage equality as a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”, Cardinal Keith O’Brien went on to opine that same-sex relationships were “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved”.

It now seems that, if the allegations by three priests and one former priest against him of ‘inappropriate acts’ are true, he has a bit of personal experience of this.

Resigning yesterday, just a few weeks before the election of a new pope and his own retirement, O’Brien’s stance on homosexuality seems to have altered the higher he rose in the Catholic church.

He was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

Two years later, when a bishop had said that homosexuals shouldn’t be able to teach in Catholic schools, O’Brien commented: “I don’t have a problem with the personal life of a person as long as they are not flaunting their sexuality”.

But by May 2005, though, he was telling members of the Scottish Parliament that homosexuals were “captives of sexual aberrations”, and comparing them to prisoners in an Edinburgh prison.

At the start of 2006, he criticised Westminster MPs over the introduction of civil partnerships in the UK, and Holyrood members over the liberalisation of divorce laws in Scotland.

Later that same year, the good cardinal opposed proposals to change the la that would require all adoption agencies – including Catholic ones – to treat potential adopters alike, be they homo or heterosexual.

His considered view on legislation that prevents some religious people behaving in a bigoted manner was that it was “aggressive secularism”.

At the end of 2011, O’Brien said that the Catholic Church was still opposed to civil partnerships and went on to claim: “The empirical evidence is clear: same-sex relationships are demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of those involved.

“No compassionate society should ever enact legislation to facilitate or promote such relationships. We have failed those who struggle with same-sex attraction and wider society by our actions.”

And by early 2012, he was claiming that the mere concept of equal marriage would shame the UK.

Remarkably, when Stonewall named O’Brien Bigot of the Year at its 2012 annual awards, there was much whinging from people saying it was a bit unfair.

It seems that bigotry and intolerance are acceptable if they come garbed in the robes of religion.

Not that O’Brien’s proclamations have been limited to homosexuality.

In 2007, he attempted to blackmail MPs who happened to be Catholic, saying that, if they supported the “social evil” of abortion, they could not expect to remain full members of the church. Sod a politician’s duty to serve their electorate.

It was Christopher Hitchens who noted: “Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch.

“Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite”.

Well, perhaps not that far in this case – although after all, cardinals already wear frocks themselves – but the allegations suggest that O’Brien himself is either gay or bi.

If they’re untrue, then there’s a certain irony to such an increasingly anti-gay voice being forced into retirement in this way.

But if the allegations are true, then hypocrisy enters the arena. Also, I suggest, does something else.

Hitchens’s comment is a succinct summary of that entire idea that homophobia is so often the phobia of one’s own self.

And here, while condemning O’Brien’s hypocrisy, there is room too for pity.

Imagine going through life believing that one’s inherent self is sinful; so sinful as to be rejected by one’s god.

Imagine that.

Imagine the guilt. Imagine the pain: the agony of struggling against your own nature.

Many clergy – and not just of the Catholic flavour or the Christian one – have stated that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’; that the only form of ‘natural’ sexuality is heterosexuality.

But more than a passing glance at nature shows this to be untrue.

Many species display homosexual/bisexual behaviour – penguins, dolphins and apes are just a few – when we look beyond the issue of how other species reproduce to the wider issue of sexual behaviour.

When that happens, it is quite clear that homosexual/bisexual behaviour can be observed in many species and are, therefore, of nature.

As a society, we often seem to misunderstand the words ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. With ‘normal’, for instance, there is a misconception that this means that something that is not the majority situation is not ‘natural’ – so to speak.

And the ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ are ones that many religious groups – and the Catholic Church is high amongst them – are keen to push.

It would be nice to believe that the next pope would address this, but I don’t hold out much hope.

However, let’s go back to O’Brien.

For all his hypocrisy – if the allegations are true – there is also that space for pity.

What a blighted life: a life lived under the tyranny of guilt. And this is not ‘guilt’ over shoplifting a Toblerone, but guilt about something over which all the evidence says we have no control; guilt over something as intrinsic and individual to each and every one of us as our sexuality.

And in O’Brien’s case, if the allegations are true, it suggests someone for whom that guilt grew as the years passed.

Imagine the self-loathing. The mortification. The agony.

For a believer, this also inevitably involves the dreadful question of sexuality being something that was itself created by the god in which they believe; for Catholics at least, to believe that any other being has the capacity for creation is heretical.

So there you are: tortured by the very god you seek to serve.

There is a part of me that wants to jeer at the passing from public life, in apparent disgrace, of someone who, increasingly as the years have passed, has made vile, bigoted statements about LGBT people.

And I am delighted that he will no longer be doing that.

But equally it is not incompatible to say that there is also a part of me that would like to give him a hug and say: ‘if that’s who you are, be yourself. It is nothing at all to be ashamed of’.

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