Cardinal O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, joins the growing list of 2013 retirees. On Sunday he announced his retirement, his apology, and his abdication of his seat in the upcoming Vatican conclave. As the head of the Catholic church in Scotland, his announcement rocks the church as it bears witness to the height and depth of clerical misconduct and the subsequent fall of the church as we knew it.
“It’s possibly, in terms of the internal history of the Church, the biggest crisis in the history of Scottish Catholicism since the Reformation,” said Tom Devine, a prominent historian. (NYTimes)
The story in Scotland is that four men now in midlife have discovered that they share a common coming of age story, unwanted advances by a powerful priest, a specific priest who has subsequently risen to power and now wears a Cardinal’s hat. Finding one another, finding strength in a story shared, these four men found voice and a reporter (story here). The rest, as they say, is history.
There is, it seems to me, one more important piece to the puzzle that bears witness. Somewhere in the years between what happened to these four men and their finding voice, the Cardinal also found (an admittedly ironic) voice.
Cardinal O’Brien was a powerful voice of the conservative orthodoxy on homosexuality that characterized the papacies of John Paul II, who elevated him, and Benedict. Abandoning the relatively tolerant approach to the issue he had adopted in the years before he donned a cardinal’s red hat, he condemned homosexuality as immoral, and as a “grotesque subversion.” (NYTimes)
Holding the Cardinal’s vehement denunciation alongside the allegations, one is reminded of Shakespeare’s protesting lady. The story of morally conservative leaders outed for their participation in the evil they decry is old news (though we humans do continue to gravitate to a good scandal). Lest we forget Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, and his ilk, a narrated list of powerful gay-bashing gay-men is just a click away (video). There is nothing new about closeted gay men screaming anti-gay slurs while using their power to take advantage of those with less power.
To be clear, I have little tolerance for clergy who prey on congregants, but I am aware that there are lessons here for the rest of us that have little to do with sexual misconduct and everything to do with our instinct to point fingers and deflect attention. Truth be told our most visceral antagonisms often bear witness to fears that can only be ignited by some seed of identity. Consider the person in your circle that most quickly gets under your skin, the one whose antics feel like fingers on the chalkboard. If you take time to be at one with the behavior that unsettles you and begin to open yourself to the places where you might identify, you will likely discover that your nemesis embodies what you fear could be true about yourself. Spiritually speaking this tendency finds its roots in our bruised ego’s attempt to justify itself in comparison to others. But it never works.
My temptation, as I read the story today, was to take the opportunity to rail on the church as institution and the anti-gay message therein, a worthy topic no doubt. But the more relevant invitation in the story is to consider my own biases and protestations, for here I will find the areas where my own spirit needs attention. Cardinal O’Brien, of course, offers a much larger and more interesting target but no matter how successfully we shred his reputation, we will find no respite for our own internal angst. Any peace that will be mine today will come only as I face the demons that are mine.
This is the one shard from the Cardinal’s story that is worthy of a red hat. I’ll take it.