First steps in a long journey – April 2013

JOSEPH FITZPATRICK and JOE BOLAND

How ought we to respond to the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Scotland’s senior Catholic churchman, following allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct towards three priests and one former priest? When the confusion and dismay have died down, what constructive steps might the Church consider in order to prevent such a thing happening in the future? Theologian Joseph Fitzpatrick and parish priest Joe Boland offer analysis and reflection.

The first step that needs to be taken regards the culture of secrecy that has characterised the Catholic Church in recent decades. The fact that some people knew about Keith O’Brien’s misbehaviour in matters sexual a long time ago and that, despite this, he was able to ascend the rungs of the clerical ladder over many years without serious interruption suggests that there is something wrong with the secretive way in which the Church appoints and promotes bishops. It also suggests reluctance on the part of individuals to blow the whistle and let those in authority know of their misgivings or objections. It would appear that the four who eventually spoke out did so only once they knew that they had the strength of numbers on their side, that they feared that their allegations against a senior churchman would have been dismissed out of hand had they spoken out merely as individuals. All of this suggests a climate of secrecy and potential cover-up that gets in the way of ensuring that those selected for high office are appropriately qualified and free of any risk of future scandal.

For this the Church only has itself to blame. In recent years Rome has taken more and more control of the processes by which bishops are appointed and promoted. It has barely listened to the opinions of local people. ‘Rome knows best’ has been the dominant attitude – and if a particular cleric is ready and willing to do Rome’s bidding by aggressively challenging practices, including sexual practices, which Rome disapproves of, the better his chances of promotion. But if local people had been more widely consulted in a climate of free and open consultation, there is a very good chance that the kind of scandal we witnessed could have been avoided.

The other point that stands out is the fact that the most prominent issues that have plagued and divided the Catholic Church in our time have to do with sex in the broadest sense: clerical sexual abuse of minors, contraception, divorced and remarried Catholics, compulsory celibacy of Catholic priests, women priests and, finally, homosexuality as a major issue in its own right. Yet we read little about sex in the bible. It is not hung up about sex but the church is.

In the West much of the blame for this must be attributed to the immense influence of St Augustine of Hippo. A former Manichaean and someone greatly influenced by Platonist philosophy who seriously repented of his sexual conduct as a young man, upon becoming a Christian Augustine communicated a deeply negative attitude to the body. He is famous as the theologian who invented the term ‘original sin’ and when he reflected on the agency by means of which he believed original sin to be transmitted down through the generations, he came up with a number of ideas, all of which reflected this negative attitude. For example, he speculated that the lustful thoughts of the male sexual partner were responsible for the transmission of original sin. One way or another, in the thinking of Augustine, the inheritance of original sin had a lot to do with sexual intercourse, and it was virtually impossible for those engaged in sexual intercourse to be free of sin.

As Cardinal Schonborn said prior to the papal conclave, it is time for the Church to re-think its theology of human sexuality, and in so doing take the steps needed if sex is not to become the bugbear of Christianity in years to come. One book that could assist such a re-think is Irish theologian Sean Fagan’s What Happened to Sin?, which charts the appalling attitude of the Christian Church to sex down through the ages but counterbalances this with an attractive, convincing and highly positive theology of sex. But Fr Fagan’s book fell foul of the Vatican censors and his Order was told to buy up all remaining copies of his book after it had sold in its thousands. The ironic result of all this: What Happened to Sin? is now retailing on Amazon at $424.47 just for the paperback! That indicates the length of the journey the Church has to travel in re-thinking its attitude to sex.

Joe Fitzpatrick

Reflecting on forgiveness
An extract from a sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Lent

I have always thought that, even if we had somehow lost or misplaced the rest of the Scriptures over the centuries and all we had left was the parable of the Prodigal Son, it would contain all we need to know about God. Over and over again the New Testament tells us that God is love, and the parable of the Prodigal Son spells out in story-form the nature of that love. It’s a love that is utterly unconditional; a love that is lavish and generous beyond our wildest dreams; a love that is willing to forgive, not seven times, but seventy seven times; a love which, in purely human terms is downright foolish. As St Paul put it, ‘For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old creation has gone and now the new one is here’. In this new creation we know that we are loved by God in this ridiculous way, and, through grace, desire to love others in the same way, forgiving them the way God has forgiven us, no matter what they have done. This is the message at the very heart of the Gospel and my hope is that by reflecting on some of the ways in which this way of thinking is in constant conflict with the world around us, we can understand better some of the issues behind the scandals which have afflicted the Church in recent years and even cast some light on the resignation of Cardinal O’Brien.

There have been many such scandals around things like money and the finances of the Vatican Bank; factions and disputes as ambitious individuals struggle for power and influence within the Roman Curia. The greatest scandal has been the horrific story of child abuse and its subsequent cover-up by Church authorities all over the world. A whole series of studies have been published which examine why the Church has so often put what it regarded as the need to protect the reputation of the institution ahead of the needs of victims. And if you were to look at the list of contents of these books, you would find things like: Clerical Elites: Rules: Obedience: Organized Irresponsibility: Power and Gender: the need for more women in positions of leadership in the Church and so on. But another important factor has been the way we have misunderstood forgiveness, using it time and again as an excuse for not addressing sinful, immoral and often criminal behaviour. Yes, God does forgive us no matter what we may have done, but what the Church has had to learn the hard way is that, as well as having to give an account of ourselves to God, we have also to give an account of ourselves to the criminal justice system and, perhaps most difficult of all, to the court of public opinion, where the accused is unlikely to receive much in the way of mercy or forgiveness.

Painful and difficult as this has been, it continues to be a necessary part of where we are as a Church at this moment in our history and one of the things we must not do is blame others for it. There are always those quick to blame anti-Catholic elements motivated by bigotry or a desire to pull the Church down. But the treatment Cardinal O’Brien received is no different essentially from the treatment the Moderator of the General Assembly or the First Minister would have received in similar circumstances. The same happened with the men who had made the allegations. Many were blaming them for what was happening, despite the fact that the first principle of the Church’s official policy on all such matters is that our starting point is to believe the victims.

What we all have to come to terms with is that the truth will set us free. And this goes far beyond the Keith O’Brien affair. There are millions around the world hoping that the new pope will be willing, able and courageous enough to address all the great issues facing the Church today. Many of them are difficult. Some of them take us into dark and murky parts of the Church’s life and history. But in the end we will only create a Church fit for the twenty first century if we are willing to leave no stone unturned in our search for what is true and so of God.

That will lead us to the new creation St Paul spoke of. Maybe it will be five hundred years in the future, maybe a thousand, and maybe only in eternity. But in that new creation, things will be very different. Shamed in the sight of everyone, stripped of all the external trappings of power, his weakness exposed for all to see, we can only imagine the pain and anguish Keith O’Brien must be feeling now. The same Church which dressed him in red and put him on the pedestal he has fallen off will now investigate him, no doubt disown him and condemn him to spend the rest of his life in disgrace. But imagine a different scenario: a Church which would treat him with the same love and compassion we heard in today’s parable. Maybe, having confronted the truth, he could even carry on being Archbishop of Edinburgh, come to terms with his own sexuality, be reconciled with those gay men and women who found what he said about them so offensive and become the wounded healer he never could be so long as he and we were pretending he was something he was not.

Now there’s a Church worth belonging to.

Joe Boland

Fr Joe Boland is parish priest of St Bride’s, West Kilbride.
Joseph Fitzpatrick’s latest book is ‘The Fall and the ascent of Man’, University Press of America, 2012.

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In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.


Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.