Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Ongoing Discussion of Cardinal O'Brien Story: A Selection of Commentary

And here's more discussion flowing from the story of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, with thanks to Chris Morley, who provided most of the links below:

Several themes are developing as discussion of the O'Brien story continues. One of these themes is the serious damage that the Catholic church is doing to its credibility as an effective moral witness in the public square, while it 1) refuses honest and open discussion of sexual issues that takes into account the graced experience of lay Catholics, and 2) simultaneously attacks gay and lesbian human beings while its priesthood contains large numbers of closeted gay men. The second theme emerging in discussion of the O'Brien story is the question of what the Vatican has known when about O'Brien--and of the Vatican's continuing refusal to discuss these matters with the public.

Re: the first theme, the conspicuous loss of Catholic moral credibility in the public square, here's Dani Garavelli in The Scotsman interviewing a closeted gay priest whose name is given as Fr. Joe:

"They say their job is not to reflect society, but to challenge society, but I think the Church has lost its moral authority to speak about homosexuality because it has shown so little tolerance of and support for gay and lesbian people," says Fr Joe, who went out of his way to ensure his Scottish parish was inclusive. "It says, ‘Oh it’s not the sinner we hate, it’s the sin,’ but to my mind, that’s rank hypocrisy" (my emphasis added).

And Terry Weldon of Queering the church speaking to Voice of Russia UK radio:

I think the entire issue of sexuality, not only homosexuality, is a ticking time-bomb. I think the Catholic church has a rather bizarre idea that sex is only for procreation inside marriage, and that is not a view supported by any of science, any of history, or any study of human societies around the world . . . . And when the rules are constructed by people who have chosen celibacy for themselves, it's not surprising that the doctrines that they come up with are going to be quite frankly disordered and dangerous. 

And Andrew Brown in The Guardian on the questions the O'Brien story raises about mandatory celibacy for priests within the Catholic church, and about the knee-jerk fundamentalist energy required as the church holds belligerently onto tribal-identity-defining doctrines and practices contested by large numbers of Catholics and by secular society:

The problem is neither with the doctrine itself, nor with the morals of the surviving world, but in their interplay, which tends to force a kind of fundamentalism on the church – using the definition of Peter Herriot, a retired psychologist at City University. He told a seminar at the British Academy last week that fundamentalists "have a dominant social identity as believers … central to their self-concept, whereas personal identity is peripheral … ensuring that conformity, maintaining strict boundaries and stereotyping outsiders … meet their needs for meaning, self-esteem and affiliation in a threatening world. Fundamentalist leaders use narratives based on powerful traditional symbols and myths which define and reinforce this unique social identity." 

Re: the second theme, here's Severin Carrell in The Guardian asking what the Vatican knew when, and why it chose to act when it did:

What led the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI to order the cardinal's immediate resignation, suddenly last Monday, when it had known of the four men's allegations since early February? 

But officials in Rome and the Vatican's representative to Britain flatly refused to discuss how long Benedict XVI had known about the accusations against Cardinal O'Brien or how many accusers there are.   . . . 
Vatican spokesmen refused to answer questions about whether an official investigation had been opened into the scandal. "I have no precise information," Fr Federico Lombardi said in response to questions by The Daily Telegraph. "We don't want to spend all week talking about Cardinal O'Brien." 
Vatican officials would not say whether any disciplinary action would be taken. 
In London, the papal nuncio, or ambassador, to Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini – who passed on the accusations against Cardinal O'Brien to Rome – refused to take any questions about when they were lodged. Mgr Vincent Brady, his secretary, said: "We are not making any comment at all."

The sullen "no comments" and "I can't help you" [i.e., by the Scottish Catholic press office] are curious, too. This is an organisation that has become the church's de facto witchfinder-generals, ever vigilant for examples of anti-Catholicism and never missing an opportunity to portray this country as bigoted and backward. 
Like the entire hierarchy of the global Catholic church, they are in complete denial about a culture of sexual dysfunction that has been operating at its core for several decades. Hardly a year passes without an example of grotesque sexual behaviour, both homosexual and heterosexual, by a priest or bishop in the church.

McKenna concludes that this response to the O'Brien story and to the public's justifiable questions about what top Catholic leaders have known when leads ineluctably to the following conclusion:

Quite simply, the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland is no longer fit for purpose. It hasn't been for a long time now: its default position is denial and concealment before accusing its critics of being motivated by bigotry.

To my mind, McKenna (and Squires and Bingham) tie together the two themes emerging from discussion of the O'Brien story--the damage the church does to its credibility as a witness to moral values when it thwarts open discussion of the issues to which it gives moral witness (and attacks a targeted minority), and the conspicuous role played in this self-damage by a system marked by secrecy and a belligerent refusal to engage in open discussion both with the world at large and with the lay members of the church. 

As McKenna brilliantly notes, when Catholic hierarchical figures want to talk, talk they do--in spates of flowery Vaticanese. When the issue is attacking gay and lesbian human beings, church officials are never at a loss for words--from Cardinal O'Brien, who has characterized gay marriage as grotesque, to emeritus pope Benedict, who repeatedly used his Christmas and new year's addresses to inform the world that gay marriage is an incomparable threat to the well-being of the world.

But ask them to talk honestly about what they have known when, as a cardinal with gay skeletons in his closet has bashed the gays and then had his skeletons revealed, and they can issue only sullen statements like, "We are not making any comment at all," and "We don't want to spend all week talking about Cardinal O'Brien." This is a rhetorical ploy. It's a rhetorical power-play.

It's designed to communicate quite clearly in whose hands power resides, and who is not fit to be talked to--who is to be shut decisively out of the conversation. The leaders of the Catholic church--and the powerful centrist commentariat of Catholic journalists and scholars who collude with those leaders in these power plays--want to communicate to the rest of us in the church that the church's magisterium retains the right to talk about the gays all it wants, but it has no obligation al all to discuss the issue of homosexuality when Catholic leaders who have attacked those are gay are found to have gay skeletons in their closets.

The silence I keep decrying among centrist intellectual leaders in my own American Catholic church, when it comes to open, honest discussion of the wide divergence between the views of real-life Catholics about sexual issues and what the church teaches, or when it comes to the harm that official Catholic teaching does to those who are gay, is continuous with a rhetorical strategy of the hierarchy designed to safeguard hierarchical power. And so the refusal of the intellectual leaders of my church, who should be concerned above all to assure the church's moral credibility in the public square, to initiate and lead open discussion of these matters, which invites gay Catholics into the conversation and listens respectfully to them, contributes to the erosion of the church's moral authority in the world.

Silence has a way of doing that, when an institution presents itself as a divinely ordained channel for transmitting moral words to the world.

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