The Catholic church was back in the news this weekend with the story of Cardinal O’Brien’s 'exile'. It’s a story that’s unlikely to go away any time soon. And given that O’Brien remains Britain’s most senior Catholic, it’s one that has wider relevance. It’s been argued that he should be left alone. But we should all be concerned that the complaints made against him are properly investigated and that appropriate action is taken.
The Catholic church was back in the news this weekend with the story of Cardinal O’Brien’s ‘exile’. It’s a story that’s unlikely to go away any time soon. And given that O’Brien remains Britain’s most senior Catholic, it’s one that has wider relevance.
It’s been argued that he should be left alone. But we should all be concerned that the complaints made against him are properly investigated and that appropriate action is taken.
Like many a politician in trouble, O’Brien finds himself a prisoner of his own wrongdoing. 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.
This is regrettable because there is much that Catholic social teaching can offer progressive politics.
A changed world
But could that be an offer of social justice which acknowledges, even embraces, the world we live in and accepts the tide of attitudinal change? Some Catholics have argued that, despite everything, things should remain wholly or largely the same. They argue that without its unchanging views on issues like sexuality, the church would not be the church. Others hope that liberal voices within the church might lead a discussion towards a less prescriptive, more tolerant future.
I’ve argued that without change at some level, the church risks declining relevance. This isn’t simply about conservative or liberal attitudes. It’s about the battle between dogma and doubt. Conservatives may believe that dogma is the essence of the church. And yet doubt is questioning and enriching and it should include doubt about what the church should say or do in the 21st century.
Pope Francis has made an auspicious start. 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.
Even those who have argued that a change of direction on matters of sexuality isn’t possible have acknowledged that a change of tone is. This may sound like limited ambition, particularly for uncompromising secularists. And that’s fair enough. But we should beware of belittling it.
The church can’t exist in splendid isolation
I wouldn’t suggest that the church should simply follow popular sentiment, any more than political parties should. But 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 the UK 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 and wider society. So far we have heard words from Pope Francis about injustice and about a fresh more vigorous approach on the issue of abuse, but it’s action on the latter that really matters. Honeymoon periods are just that and when they are over people will rightly want to see a material change.
I didn’t expect that change to extend to a different position on sexuality from the Pope himself. But I’m sad that so far a different tone looks a world away with a Brazilian priest excommunicated for defending gay marriage and the Archbishop of San Francisco declaring that it is an injustice that would harm vulnerable children, to name just two 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 the abuse scandal in particular, 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.
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