The hypocrisy of Keith O’Brien is too easy a target

Hypocrisy (n)
1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
2. The practice of professing standards, beliefs, etc., contrary to one’s real character or actual behaviour, esp the pretence of virtue and piety

PriestKeith O’Brien, everyone’s favourite recently retired Scottish ex-cardinal, has issued a statement relating to the accusations made against him by four young priests, dating back many years. He admits to general failings, remaining uncommunicative on the specific allegations. While the statement is carefully worded, I think we can take that as an admission to the essence of the claims, if not the details. In his own words:

[T]here have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.

The reaction to this statement has been unsurprising. Ahead of the expected avalanche of comment, journalist and broadcaster Iain Maciver was quick to air what’s likely to be a common opinion, with a fairly pithy summary of his views:

This is proof, yet again, that the very worst religion-inspired homophobia comes from absolute hypocrites.

O’Brien would appear to be at the very least opportunistically homosexual, acting in ways that exploited his position of power in a highly dubious fashion. And he spoke out in colourful terms against gay people and any suggestion of gay rights. Add those together, and it’s easy to conclude that he’s a hypocrite, right?

Well, actually, that’s where it gets complicated. We know nothing about his private opinions, which makes it surprisingly difficult to pin this charge on him. We know that his behaviour has not always been in line with the doctrine he espoused from the pulpit, but this doesn’t mean that he didn’t genuinely believe in what he said. As Samuel Johnson argued in Rambler 14:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

It’s possible to hold and profess beliefs that you yourself struggle to live by, without being a hypocrite. I believe that people should be patient and considerate towards each other, and generally not be jerks, but I can’t claim that I always manage to live by that ideal. I don’t think that makes me a hypocrite, but then, I don’t campaign to have impatient people disadvantaged and condemned by society.

O’Brien’s meddling in the political process certainly makes the picture more complicated, but I’m not aware that he’s ever campaigned for a position that would have caused him problems in the past, such as legal penalties for homosexual acts. His condemnation of gay sex is extreme, but while his manner falls short of what might be considered sensitive and pastoral, it may also be a genuine reflection of his views, despite (or even because of) his own personal weakness.

Priest_4This probably looks like a desperate defence, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As my history shows, I have no love for O’Brien or his views, and if you want to call him a hypocrite you’re welcome to do so, but to me, the charge looks arguable at best on the available evidence, and makes the debate personal while letting both him and church off the hook.

If he’s a hypocrite on this evidence, so are just about all of us, but few of us have abused and exploited our positions for sexual gain, which makes hypocrisy pale in comparison. More importantly, the church as a whole is unrivalled for bigotry and heavy tax-exempt lobbying against basic civil equality legislation, and I think they’re more important than throwing names at an old, retired and disgraced man, however accurate they might be.

O’Brien is gone, but like Breech in The Outer Limits, another will take his place, and if you’re expecting to see any significant change in tone, you’ll be disappointed. The church’s teaching isn’t about to move a single inch, and you don’t become a cardinal without knowing how to toe the line. So why focus on the personal failings of one man, when the rest of the edifice (including a disciplinary system that warns whistleblowers they’ll damage the church) will stay rock solid?

The problem is still the church, and if that’s going to change, it’s the unwarranted influence of sectarian interests in public life that needs to be challenged, not one man’s failings. It may even be that Keith O’Brien was screwed up by the church’s teachings just as much as anyone else. Despite his position, and without diminishing the impact of the bad things he did, he can still be a victim.

Images courtesy of Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo and Elvis Santana, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

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