The downfall of Cardinal Keith O’Brien could not have been more complete if it had been orchestrated by Stonewall, which, if you recall, awarded him Bigot of the Year for his opposition to gay marriage. Actually, the one surprise is that it wasn’t Stonewall that brought him down, but three Scottish priests, and one ex-priest, courtesy of The Observer.  The most senior Catholic cleric in Britain, the most forthright opponent of gay marriage; quite a scalp for secularists, gay rights activists and indeed for some Catholics of a liberal persuasion. One Catholic academic, when he heard the news, observed that this marked the end of the Church’s authority on matters to do with sex – no more Rome in the bedroom.

Which is one take on it. The Guardian lost no time in its editorial today in getting the boot into a man who epitomised every attitude it least likes about Catholicism, notably abortion. Except that it went even further, observing that Rome ‘has a special problem with sex’ and in a spectacularly spiteful aside added: ‘even if one discounts innuendo about Pope Benedict XVI’s own proclivities’. Sorry? Come again? Was that a suggestion that the pope himself is a homosexual? Perhaps that was intended as a reference to Benedict’s good looking sidekick, Georg Gänswein, a cue for readers to take to the internet? Or a titter at his weakness for old fashioned regalia? Raising allegations for which there is just no evidence goes to show that Keith O’Brien has become a useful means to get at the Vatican in general, and the pope in particular.

Actually, the culture that gave rise to these alleged abuses by the cardinal does merit scrutiny. The one good thing about these allegations/revelations (which he may yet contest) is that they were first brought to the attention of the papal nuncio and that he responded, not by silencing the accusers, but by praising them for their bravery. In the old days – well, before the child abuse scandals alerted the church to the reality there is a problem – criticism was hushed up rather than addressed; anything rather than give comfort to the opposition. The replacement of a post-Reformation mindset by a culture of (relative) openness is a very good thing.

Then there’s the atmosphere in which a man, in a position of authority may make overtures to another man who is not  in a position to tell him where to get off: a classic abuse of power. Celibacy may indeed free men and women for the service of others, but it’s a lonely sort of life and, in combination with the culture of drink in Scottish and Irish clerical circles, it’s possible for emotional intimacy to take quite another turn. Candidates for the priesthood nowadays are assessed for their psychological readiness for celibacy; it wasn’t the case in the Sixties when Keith O’Brien was ordained.

Above all, we might ask, do Keith O’Brien’s lapses – if that’s what they were – make him a hypocrite? Plainly not on abortion: it’s possible for gay and straight people, atheists and believers, to take a dim view of abortion. But even on the question of gay marriage it’s possible even for men with homosexual proclivities to consider that the interests of society are not best served by gay marriage, given that marriage is an institution established with the interests of children in mind. It’s an objective question of the social good, not one from which you are barred from an opinion by your own sexual lapses.And for those who think an end to compulsory celibacy is the answer, it’s not. 

Ordaining married men, which Keith O’Brien favoured, may make the priesthood less lonely – though it creates other problems – but it has nothing to do with homosexuality. Or gay marriage. Lumping disparate issues into a single problem of sex isn’t really in the interests of honest debate.

Tags: Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Catholic Church, Gay Marriage, UK politics, Vatican