Monday, 4 March 2013

Of Scandal and Sanctity

The first item on the 7 am bulletin on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning was the news of Cardinal O'Brien's statement, released via the Scottish Catholic Media Office, in which the Cardinal admitted that
there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.
That this item displaced the news of Her Majesty the Queen's hospitalisation to second place in the bulletin gives considerable cause for thought. The package immediately following the news bulletin is covered in this BBC news website report: Priests 'feel vindicated' after Cardinal Keith O'Brien admission.

Since the resignation of the now Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, I have had a couple of conversations with a colleague at work about things Catholic. This morning my observation was to the effect that the Catholic Church does both scandal and sanctity in a big way.

The Times reporting today, on an inside page rather than the front page, included the following:
A Scottish parish priest said last night: "We should be pleased that he has admitted it and said sorry, that is a good thing. People need time to grieve before we can move on.

"The Church as an institution can be a pretty ugly thing. The Church as a community can be beautiful, a very different experience from the hierarchy ... The Church as an institution has some very real issues to face up to".
If the placing of "institution" and "community" apart from each other is read as suggesting a kind of two-fold Church - and it is not clear that this is the intention of the parish priest quoted, though it is a possible way of interpreting his remark as published by the Times - then I do not think we have captured the full import of Cardinal O'Brien's actions. It is the one Church, a single whole, that has been affected by the scandal of the original actions, and the way in which they have played out in the media. It might well be that those who hold office in the Church - in various positions in the hierarchy -  have a particular responsibility in terms of the way in which they have behaved and/or responded to the situation, and that they need to face up to the proper exercise of that responsibility. But they will do so as part of a single body of the Church and not apart from that body.

There are two styles of opportunistic media comment that do not touch on the real issues at stake for the Church. One is Stonewall Scotland's observation, quoted at the end of the BBC website report:
"But we also actually think it is quite sad that in this day and age somebody feels they have to lie about their sexuality to themselves and to other people as well."
And the other is the attack on the Catholic Church's practice of priestly celibacy perhaps most sadly, because of a large readership, represented in the blogosphere by Cranmer: It is not good for priests to be alone.

The fallacy of the first comment is that it assumes that what one is tempted to do is therefore what one ought to do and is morally right. There is no concept of an objective moral order that, though we be Cardinal, priest, religious or lay, we might fail in our attempt to practice but which nevertheless remains the bench mark for our striving as far as our actions are concerned.

The fallacy of the second is the equation of celibacy and alone-ness. Celibate friendship with others is quite possible, and it can be lived in a positive and fulfilling way. See, for example, this testimony from Fr Stephen Wang, from which I extract just one sentence: Celibacy and the Catholic priesthood.
What matters is trying to be faithful, instead of pretending that another way of life would be easy.
Scandal and Sanctity. In so far as every Christian life is lived in the space between the extreme of these two experiences, perhaps we should all try to move further away from the former and nearer to the latter, whatever our state of life in the Church. And perhaps we have to face the reality that the Catholic Church does seem inclined to do both in a big way.


Joe said...

A useful, and thoughtful, post is here:

Joe said...

Fr Stephen Langridge has posted a "Word of Encouragement", intended particularly for those considering a vocation to the priesthood, but which is helpful for all of us. It says rather more clearly what I was trying to say at the end of this post.