Why Cardinal O’Brien’s new-found progressiveness has got me annoyed
Cardinal Keith O’Brien isn’t exactly one of my favourite religious thinkers, so it was a pleasant surprise yesterday to discover that he is capable of independent thought. I thought his statement that Catholic priests should be allowed to marry was a welcome burst of common sense, even if it was hedged about with caveats.
But the more I thought about what he said, the more irritated I became.
An obvious objection to his view is that he claims the church’s positions on certain issues (such as abortion and euthanasia) are “basic dogmatic beliefs” of “divine origin”. Even when advocating change, he’s bolstering the church’s right to interfere with civil legislation based on nothing more than “because we say so”.
There’s also the fact that he claims it’s fine for priests to marry because Jesus didn’t say they couldn’t. In fact, Jesus isn’t recorded as approving of the existence of priests in any way, and nor did he have anything to say about the topics of abortion, euthanasia or O’Brien’s current favourite hobby horse, same-sex marriage.
(How would that have gone? “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage, unless they have the wrong dangly bits”, possibly. Or maybe at the wedding at Cana, Jesus would have refused to turn water into wine until he’d checked that the happy couple were definitely of opposite sexes. But I digress.)
It’s clear that O’Brien’s own arguments show him to be woefully inconsistent, entertaining the idea of dropping one belief based on a particular reason, but clinging resolutely to other beliefs even though exactly the same reasoning could be applied to call them into question. But that still isn’t what’s really got under my skin.
What annoys me most about this is the effect of these beliefs, and how they’re targeted. However bizarre enforced priestly celibacy might seem, no one’s forced to become a priest – it’s a choice people make knowing what it entails. On the other hand, same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia are all issues on which the Roman Catholic Church believes it has the right to tell everyone what to do, aggressively campaigning to align the state’s position with their own.
So despite the identical outcome of the Cardinal’s own argument, the only one of these issues he thinks warrants a second glance is the one which affects a small group of priests like him, and he positively endorses the status quo in the others, expecting people to be compelled to act in line with his views whatever their own moral or religious beliefs. I’m struggling to find a generous interpretation of these facts.
Unfortunately, I suspect this inconsistency is a product of personal influences. A Cardinal will know and speak to many priests, and will sympathise and identify with them and their struggles even if he himself has little interest in marrying. The other acts are all committed by “the other”, people who can easily be dismissed as sinners without further engagement, perpetuating the same pattern of thought that first created the doctrine.
And so the pattern continues. I say I’m annoyed, but maybe saddened would be a better word.