You’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard about the downfall of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Catholic church’s highest ranking UK official.
A week ago, four men (three priests; one ex-priest) came forward alleging the Cardinal had behaved inappropriately towards them. The claims dated back to the 1980s. The Cardinal denied the claims at the time. Then a fifth priest emerged, with a claim as recent as 2001. The Cardinal brought forward his retirement plans and resigned immediately. Then, this weekend, the Cardinal confessed.
Stop laughing at the back!
Yes, okay, it’s kinda funny. I’ve said it before, there’s a certain glee attached to seeing these people fall so spectacularly from grace. This is the man awarded Stonewall’s Bigot of the Year prize, after all. But in another sense it is desperately, desperately sad.
Entering the priesthood has long been considered a good route for gay men who want to hide – or simply don’t want to address – their sexuality. For a young man filled with self-loathing and religious fervour perhaps the concept of lifelong celibacy seems possible – even attractive. Certainly easier than facing being shunned by your friends and family, living under fear of persecution and oppression in a relationship condemned by society at large, and the church in particular.
Just take a moment and think, those of you who are reading this who aren’t gay, what it must be like to hear from all angles that you’re filthy, immoral and perverted, simply for falling in love. To worry that your own parents will stop loving you.
Lifelong celibacy is hard, whoever you are. O’Brien recently broke ranks to suggest that (straight) priests should be allowed to marry. There is no religious mandate for the celibacy vow, and many other denominations allow their clergy to marry. When all that youthful fervor burns off and you find yourself thirty or forty or fifty, and everyone you know has settled down…suddenly celibacy doesn’t look so appealing. But relaxing the celibacy rule for heterosexual priests would only serve to further isolate and marginalise their homosexual brethren.
There’s also the matter of the way priests live. In any single-sex environment, emotions run high. Be it a boarding school or sports team, a prison or a seminary – particularly when the inhabitants are young and their hormones are running wild – there are always friendships that develop a bit more; crushes. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything sexual about those feelings, but in a situation where the inhabitants are starved of any other sexual outlet, the body will take what it can get. As humans, I sincerely believe we need to love and to be loved: desire is about more than biology, more than acts.
Put young gay men into that environment and you’re begging for something more to develop.
But being queer in the clergy is never easy – particularly not in the Catholic church. All the reasons that make it such a magnet for a certain type of gay man are ultimately the reasons why it destroys them. The Catholic church’s absolute refusal to acknowledge or condone homosexuality; the heavy-handed way it manages its clergy and the same tired old rhetoric of sin and damnation.
As one priest put it:
There’s been a constant drip, drip, drip of negativity, taking away guys’ self-esteem, coming from this hypocritical section of the Church.
And it is hypocritical. The scandals surrounding the church these days are not so much that their priests are gay, but that they spend their time denouncing homosexuality in public while engaging in sexual acts with other men in private.
But these stories don’t seem to go away. There have been recent allegations of the existence of a ‘gay mafia‘ holding sway in the highest echelons of the church – with some suggestion that the revelation was the cause of the Pope’s abdication; conspiracy rages around when, exactly, the Vatican became aware of the initial allegations regarding O’Brien; and even the Pontiff himself hasn’t escaped gossip regarding his domestic arrangements.
The comments made by the priest who first complained about O’Brien – he says he went to the Vatican in October 2012 – are telling:
There have been two sensations for me this week. One is feeling the hot breath of the media on the back of my neck and the other is sensing the cold disapproval of the church hierarchy for daring to break ranks. I feel like if they could crush me, they would. [Emphasis mine]
The Catholic church is good at nothing if not covering its own arse. From routine mistreatment of inmates in its homes for fallen girls, to systematic abuse of children under its care, to the hushing up of sex scandals on every single level, the church has been there, done that, and greased its PR machine a little bit more. So much so, in fact, that the oily stench is beginning to cling, even over the incense.
These are scandals that simply will not go away. Which begs the question why, in an organisation so, sooooooo concerned with the perceived ‘morality’ of others – that seeks to legislate that morality at every turn – it cannot control the behaviour its own advocates? What is is about the Catholic church in particular that leads to these sorts of stories raising their heads at every turn?
I’ve seen the Catholic church described as ‘the world’s shame’. That seems about right to me. This is an organisation that wields truly terrifying power, a law unto itself, which can call down fire and brimstone and the wrath of God upon those who defy it (or so it claims…). It is an organisation steeped in mystery; it has a finger in the pie of every great event in the human history of the last two thousand years; it could be a truly global force for good. And yet at every turn – every turn – it absolutely rejects its own teaching of love and forgiveness in favour of bile, spite and bitterness.
Worse, by treating the beating of young girls, the rape of children, the coercion of adults and the consensual (loving?) intimacies of couples – both gay and straight – as fundamentally the same thing (all deviant; all to be hushed up) it implies a correlation between them that simply does not exist. It criminalises love: the very force it claims to stand for.
You might think these are the bitter rantings of an atheist against an institute I neither respect nor understand, but – as I’ve said before – I think individual faith can be a wonderful, magical thing. I don’t care if you worship God, Allah or the strange flaming ball in the sky, if it makes you a better person. And religion preaches a lot of great qualities – love, forgiveness, acceptance. So why is it that the higher up you get, the more hateful you become?
Pope Benedict XVI is on record saying that:
[AIDS] cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.
He said that in March 2009, on a flight to Cameroon, where 540,000 people were living with HIV. That man has blood on his hands for that comment alone. He has called homosexuals disordered people with a “strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil”. Where gay marriage is concerned, he advocates civil disobedience:
In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application.
Just think for a moment how wonderful it would be if the new Pope was a man who embraced those good, old-fashioned Christian values of yesteryear? Turn the other cheek… Let he who is without sin cast the first stone… Love thy neighbour as thyself. Think what a driving force for good the Catholic church could be, if only it chose.
As the Dalai Lama put it:
The purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticise others.