Cardinal sins and Catholic futures

Cardinal sins

The Catholic church is back in the news again this weekend with the story of Cardinal O’Brien’s ‘exile’. It’s been a tough time for Scottish Catholics. And wherever they stand on the issues that divide opinion within and outwith the church, the Cardinal’s fate is one story many would surely like to see the back of.

And yet it’s a story that’s unlikely to go away any time soon. The Herald reported yesterday that Professor Tom Devine thinks that O’Brien should be left alone. But both Catholics and non-Catholics will rightly be concerned that the complaints made against him are properly investigated and that appropriate action is taken. He’s said again that he’s sorry for his wrong doing. Sadly it’s far from clear what he thinks that wrong doing was.

It’s all too easy to draw the inference from his words about ‘God’s law’ that he thinks that being tempted by homosexuality, or maybe even just sex, is the sin he must atone for rather than any inappropriate or abusive behaviour. Oh what a tangled web we weave commented one observer. And not without good cause.

Like many a politician in trouble, O’Brien finds himself a prisoner of circumstance. And like many a political party, his church does too, seemingly lacking the capacity or the will to extricate itself from the obscene mess it has got itself into. Lest we forget, that’s a mess which has seen, amongst other things, thousands of children around the world abused with impunity.

So what now for the Catholic church in Rome and here in Scotland? The election of Pope Francis was obviously a momentous event for Catholics in Argentina, but Scottish Catholics have felt the hand of history too. For many there will be a sense that whatever happens next, nothing will be quite the same again.

And there’s the rub. Some have argued that, despite everything, things should remain wholly or largely the same. Writing in The Scotsman on March 21st, Michael Kelly asserted that Christianity is tough and that the new Pope’s message may be too hard for most. On February 28th in response to the events surrounding the Cardinal, he challenged the notion that those events were a crisis or would be regarded as such 50 years down the line.

Mr Kelly wrote then that without its unchanging views on matters of human sexuality, the church would not be the church. He suggested that Dani Garavelli, writing in The Scotsman the previous day had correctly identified the alternative for those who didn’t believe that: walk away.

Ms Garavelli had spoken of her hope that liberal voices within the church would lead a discussion that would enable it to embark on a less prescriptive, more tolerant future. A couple of days earlier I’d blogged that there must be a glimmer of hope that such voices would at last be heard and that I would be staying put, not walking away.

I had already argued that without change at some level, the church risked declining relevance. My views on Pope Benedict’s tenure will have been regarded by some conservative Catholics as harsh, ill considered, even absurd. Yet like their views, mine were those of a practicing Catholic with a deep personal faith. Mr Kelly may believe that dogma is the essence of the church. But my faith is not dogmatic. I’ve light heartedly referred to the impossibility of it being so in the past: how could it be for a practicing Catholic who is also a practicing homosexual?

But there’s a more serious argument for me which others in the church, conservative or liberal, may have a shared experience of. And it’s that doubt is part of the strength of my faith. Not so for everyone maybe. The late Cardinal Winning reportedly never doubted. But many of us do.

In truth my doubt and my sexuality have not been strangers. I’ve struggled because the message was too hard, and in my view wrongheaded. But my doubt has been about far more than sexuality. In fact I don’t believe in faith without doubt. Doubt is questioning and searching. It’s enriching and strengthening. I don’t so much mean doubt about God’s existence, though by goodness that takes a knocking in today’s world. But doubt about what would Jesus have said or done. Doubt about what the church should say or do now.

And so we come to Pope Francis, to the hard test he sets us and whether change is appropriate or possible, either in teaching or in tone. Pope Francis has made an auspicious start. A honey moon period it may be, though not without controversy lurking or for the want of those who wish to seek it out.

It’s beyond question that here is someone who is different and who can potentially create change. His evident distaste for some of the trappings of pomp and ceremony and his demonstrable connection with, and commitment to, poor people are different. They can also make a difference as he tackles reform in the curia and champions social justice.

For Catholics who believe that the church has something important to say about social justice, a change of focus is hugely welcome. This is mainly because it matters for itself but for some of us; it’s also because it creates the space for a different sort of conversation about issues on which Pope Francis is more socially conservative. His reportedly pragmatic stance on gay civil partnerships in Argentina suggested that he’s prepared to accept the consequences of such conversations.

Even those who have argued that a change of direction on matters of human sexuality is not possible have acknowledged that a change of tone is. A change of tone may sound like limited ambition, particularly for uncompromising secularists for whom nothing less than gay marriage in church is what we’re entitled to. And that’s fair enough. But we should beware of belittling it.

We all know from our own experience, perhaps when coming out to hostile or anxious parents, that a change of tone matters because it creates the space for understanding and respect. At a practical level for me and other gay Catholics a change of tone would mean less worry about going to Mass only to be confronted with shrill calls which denounce our sexuality and the practice of it as immoral. For people in the developing world facing persecution, a change of tone could matter far more.

Those on the conservative wing of the church who have argued that expectations of wholesale change from the election of a new Pope were ill informed have a point. It was never likely. But to suggest, as some have done, that we are wrong to argue for it is something I can’t accept. A change of tone is at least a start.

It’s a two way street of course. Regular readers of my blog will know that my tone has been pretty strident these last 12 months. I don’t apologise for that because things needed to be said. But I would like to have a different dialogue, one based on openness, compassion and a desire to understand. And I think the Scottish Catholic establishment would do well to think about the value of that too.

Michael Kelly rightly pointed out that the Pope is not the church. We are the church and while I don’t suggest that it should simply follow popular sentiment, the church does exist in a particular context which, like everyone else, it has to negotiate. And that context varies across the world. Social attitudes have changed in Scotland and that is true of Catholics too.

For the church to continue setting itself against that change would be for it to reject the opportunity for dialogue that can be of lasting value for Catholics, wider society and its own reputation. And so how the Catholic establishment here responds to the Cardinal’s fate and to the opportunities presented by succession really does matter.

That there has been a change of tone and style on the part of the new Pope is very clear. So far we have heard words, about injustice and about a fresh more vigorous approach on the issue of abuse, but it’s action on the latter that really matters. Honey moon periods are just that and when they are over people will rightly want to see a material change.

I for one didn’t expect that change to extend to a different position on sexuality from the Pope himself. But I’m sad that so far the different tone I’d hoped for looks a world away with a Brazilian priest ex communicated for defending gay marriage and the Archbishop of San Francisco declaring that it is an injustice that would harm vulnerable children, to name just too recent moments. 

The Church's position belongs at the hard end of the moral compass but as Pope Francis has demonstrated, tenderness and humility matter. And in the light of recent events, moral credibility rather than moral authority may be a more humble aspiration. That credibility could start with a pause button on such spurious and offensive claims and tolerance for a different point of view even if it’s not one the church can immediately endorse.

Earlier today, a post on Scots Catholic argued that the BBC’s Big Questions had become intolerant of the Christian view. And yet tolerance is often in short supply within the church. Scots Catholic’s strap line is ‘The Catholic Faith in Scotland is Alive’. It certainly is, but it’s considerably more diverse than the church seems prepared to accept.

wrote about LGSM earlier this year in my blog about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy for lesbian and gay rights. Michael Kerrigan was, I understand, involved in LGSM. I was very much on the periphery. But it has remained an emotional and political touchstone for me ever since.

Transgressive and transformational, LGSM was magic. Magic is not my word but that of Mike Jackson, one of those at the forefront of the campaign, writing in 1988. He was not wrong and the word reverberates for me whenever I think of the strike. LGSM used to meet on Sunday evening in the upstairs room of an alternative gay pub in Islington called The Fallen Angel. It had an energy and urgency which I can still conjure up nearly 30 years later.

As the poster for Micheal Kerrigan’s play says, LGSM is a story of what happens when communities stand together. Lesbian and gay workers from across the labour movement and beyond forged a powerful relationship with miners and their families in Dulais Valley, South Wales. The play takes its name from the wonderful Pits and Perverts Ball held in Camden’s Electric Ballroom in December 1984; a strike fundraiser to rival any other. And the poster is a version of the original poster for the event.

LGSM was indeed magic. Miners on the annual Pride march in London in 1984 was a sight no one would have predicted just a couple of years earlier. And it was instrumental in securing  support from the NUM for a groundbreaking motion on lesbian and gay rights at the 1985 Trades Union Congress; a motion in the name of my union NALGO and the probation officers’ union, NAPO.

I didn’t get directly involved in LGSM for various reasons. I was Branch Secretary of NALGO at Westminster City Council and we had plenty on our hands dealing with the policies of the now infamous Shirley Porter. And I was chairing NALGO’s fledgling National Lesbian and Gay Steering Committee. But always when I look back LGSM is there, colouring in the landscape of the times.

For me the power of LGSM was never clearer than when I came out to striking miners at Carcroft NUM near Doncaster. Westminster NALGO had twinned with Carcroft. The miners there had heard about LGSM and it made sense to them in a way that they themselves admitted wouldn’t have been the case previously. They understood that we had come together to defend their communities. These were old and new struggles finding common cause at a seismic moment.

I’ve recently written about the change in attitudes to homosexuality since the early 1980s. Thanks to the British Social Attitudes survey, we have rigorous long term evidence of that change. But what we know less about, is how and why that change has occurred. We know about the campaigning for sure, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. But I think what has really made a difference is personal connection.

It’s the fact that the otherness of homosexuality has become sameness within families and communities. Lesbians and gay men are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – and friends. For sure many will have struggled with those relationships and been rejected. But for many acceptance has transcended otherness. And LGSM was about personal connection too; by creating common cause, it broke down the barriers between people who would otherwise have been them and us.

LGSM was brave, counter intuitive and unprecedented. I understand Mike Jackson was at the opening of Pits and Perverts last night and I can’t think of a more appropriate person for the play’s audience. He has said himself that LGSM wasn’t about leaders, bureaucracies or heroes. But as I looked one from the sidelines, and LGSM provided me with inspiration and courage, he and those who sustained it were undoubtedly heroes. And by bringing it back to life, Pits and Perverts creates the opportunity to celebrate their contribution.

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