A day after he stood formally accused by three priests and one ex-priest of sexually harassing them, Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation from his office was announced by the Vatican. O’Brien did not admit fault in the accusations, or address them at all, except perhaps in this oblique remark:
Looking back over my years of ministry: for any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended.
It is not credible to think that O’Brien resigned simply to avoid controversy at the upcoming conclave, as his public statement indicates. The man has been formally accused by three active priests and one ex-priest. That’s not nothing. Here is the news report from the weekend about the allegations. The ex-priest says he didn’t leave the priesthood to marry, but rather because when O’Brien became archbishop, he knew he would be forever subject to the man who sexually abused him:
“You have to understand,” explains the ex-priest, “the relationship between a bishop and a priest. At your ordination, you take a vow to be obedient to him.
“He’s more than your boss, more than the CEO of your company. He has immense power over you. He can move you, freeze you out, bring you into the fold … he controls every aspect of your life. You can’t just kick him in the balls.”
This is an enormously important point that explains in part the silence of so many US Catholic priests over the years. In point of fact, there is today an American cardinal who has done the same things that Cardinal O’Brien is accused of — and actually much worse. Many priests know this is true; more than a few of them with direct knowledge have given me chapter and verse on this cardinal, and have told other reporters too, but they wouldn’t go public because they quite rightly feared retaliation. Without on-the-record accusations, or documents, journalists’ hands were tied. May God, and the example of these courageous Scottish priests, give them the strength to go public now.
Not long ago I spoke with a prominent Catholic layman who said he was on the verge of leaving the Church. Why? I asked. He said that he had become exhausted with the abuse scandal, and how little accountability there has been within the Church. “They act like it’s over, but it’s not even close to over,” he said.
He didn’t give me any details, and I didn’t press him, because he was visibly in pain as he talked about it. The more I learned about this gentleman, I realized that he wasn’t just talking through his hat, that he really is in a position to know a lot more than most people at what goes on behind the scenes. And he’s just about done with the lack of integrity among the church’s leadership, and the cover-ups that they’re still sitting on.
I can’t help thinking back to the words I quoted here last week, from the Catholic theologian Larry Chapp, about the spiritual danger at this moment in the life of the Catholic Church. The Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass brought them up in an interview with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Excerpt:
It was time to give him a printout that spoke to Benedict’s warning of that crisis of faith, a recent essay by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative magazine. It contained a passage from the Catholic theologian Larry Chapp:
“… One thing that is being overlooked in all of this is Benedict’s statement that the reason why the Church needs someone with more physical at the helm is because the faith of the Church is facing what he calls a ‘grave crisis.’ … I think he is saying there is something uniquely dangerous in the current situation of the Church and that unique thing is the de facto apostasy of so many within the Church, up to, and perhaps especially including, many members of the clergy and religious. Chapp went on to say that the drumbeat for the church to change its fundamental structure has prompted many to view it through the “lens of power and politics.”
Some argue that liberalizing the church, allowing women to become priests, and relaxing prohibitions on gay marriage and birth control, would appeal to more people. Others, like Chapp, worry it weakens the church’s ability to evangelize a stridently, militantly secular West.
Cardinal George acknowledged the pope is concerned about faith, and added that all the cardinals are concerned as well. This will be utmost in their minds when they deliberate in Rome.
“Always, the first question is ‘Does it square with the faith? Will we betray the Lord if we do this?’ And that’s what is hard for (journalists) to understand,” he said. “The question of the ordination of women, we’re not free to change a sacrament that we believe has come to us from Christ. We’re just not free to do it and that’s very hard for some people to understand, because if they want it and believe that it’s a good thing and you can talk that way, then why can’t you do it? Only because you’re fusty and obstructionist and out-of-date …
“The larger question: Is there now such a sea change in Western culture that people can’t believe; that they aren’t open to belief?” he asked. “That therefore you have to be your own god in a way. ‘You have to do just what you want to do in the way that you want to do it. You have to follow your own dream.’
“Well, it’s important to follow God’s dream.
“So we could say maybe (some) people have lost the gift of faith because we’ve created a society where people can’t believe. It’s impossible — well, not impossible, never impossible, but very difficult — to believe because it goes against the grain to say, ‘I surrender my life.’ Maybe it’s why marriage is in such difficulty because when you’re married that’s what you do. You surrender your life to a woman or a man, a husband, a wife. Well, faith means you surrender your life to God.”
Let’s connect a couple of dots here. First, the cardinal said:
Always, the first question is ‘Does it square with the faith? Will we betray the Lord if we do this?
And then he said:
So we could say maybe (some) people have lost the gift of faith because we’ve created a society where people can’t believe. It’s impossible — well, not impossible, never impossible, but very difficult…
He is right about these things, and that implies a severe critique of the clergy, especially the bishops, and most especially the cardinals, to whom much power was entrusted, and from whom much is therefore rightly expected.
We do live in a society and culture where it is harder — much harder — for people to believe in Christianity. This is not because of some nefarious plot by secularists — well, not entirely because of that — but because of a number of historical currents that have carried the West to this point. As the philosopher Charles Taylor points out, what makes ours a “secular age” is not that it’s an age of unbelief, but it is an age in which even believers are aware of the possibility of unbelief, in a way that was simply not a psychological reality 500 years ago. This is not merely because of the advance of science and reason, Taylor contends, but has a more complex origin. Whatever the causes, the undeniable fact is that Christianity has to make its case for belief in a world that finds commitment to belief difficult.
Over the weekend, I wrote about the role World War I played in shattering the confidence of people in the West. The literary historian and critic Paul Fussell wrote:
But the Great War took place in what was, compared with ours, a static world, where the values appears stable and where the meaning of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honor meant. It was not until eleven years after the war that Hemingway could declare in A Farewell to Arms that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” In the summer of 1914 no one would have understood what on earth he was talking about. …
I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.
The point to grasp here is not that “glory,” “honor,” “courage,” and “hallow” have no meaning. The point is that the experience of the Great War was so horrific and so hearing that in its wake, many people could not hear those words unironically. That is, those words had been used to conceal so much horror that their very invocation was not only hollow, it was almost a taunt.
After I posted that earlier piece, I went outside to do some yardwork, but couldn’t get Fussell’s words off my mind. It occurred to me that the process he describes about how the experience of the Great War searing people’s imaginations such that they could only hold abstract concepts like glory and honor lightly is not wholly alien to the experience I had in the three or four years I wrote about the abuse scandal, and what it did to my religious imagination. As you know, I emerged out of that as an Orthodox Christian, but I’ve been as blunt as I can with my priest-confessor about how much I struggle with Christian concepts that I used to think about in a different, more trusting way. Seeing the reality behind these words and concepts, and how they were, and are, used to conceal horrific, filthy things, makes it hard for me to trust them at all, even in my new church.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that concepts like “holiness,” “priesthood,” “sacrament,” “bishops,” and so forth are empty. I don’t believe they are, any more than I disbelieve in the existence of glory and honor. It’s just that whenever these things are talked about and invoked, I reflexively become skeptical, fearful, and guarded, and I hold back. I hold back a lot.
I’m not saying that the abuse scandal was as bad as World War I, for heaven’s sake. I’m saying that to learn the extent of the scandal, the intimate details of what was done, and to know how much never got reported, and won’t be reported for various reasons — to have that experience can make it much harder to believe the claims put forth by Christian leaders. I will risk overstating my point, because I want to be absolutely clear about this: the sins of cardinals, bishops, priests, and ordinary Christians like me do not make the Christian faith untrue. But they can make it much more difficult for Christians to hold on to their faith, and all but impossible for non-Christians to take what we Christians say seriously.
Cardinal O’Brien had a reputation for speaking out boldly for Catholic truth about homosexuality and marriage. He was called an anti-gay bigot by his opponents in the UK. And now, if these charges against him are true, he will have been shown to have been a roaring hypocrite, and the UK Catholic witness to Christian truth will be even more diminished and despised. How do you convince a hostile secular culture that you follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life when your top leader may have betrayed the Lord in such a way? And when you think about the horror of the sexual abuse of children, and how princes of the Church like Bernard Law not only let it happen on their watch, and facilitated it by moving pedophiles around, but were never held meaningfully accountable by the Vatican (indeed, Pope John Paul II rewarded Cardinal Law with a comfy post in Rome) — well, to say that none of this makes it easier for people to believe in the Gospel is a grotesque understatement.
Religious truth is the kind of truth that cannot be adequately demonstrated by apologetic argument, but rather conveyed through embodiment. This, I think, is what Pope Benedict meant when he said,
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.
Note those words: “really effective.” That is, the only things that really work to convert hearts are personal holiness and beauty. I think that is deeply, undeniably true, because both holiness and beauty work to prepare the mind and the heart to hear the Gospel. In my own case, seeing the Chartres cathedral opened my closed mind to Christianity, and the personal example of Christians I knew — priests and lay — conveyed to me the conviction that the faith they had was faith in something real. Eventually I was able to accept the gift of faith. The authority with which these priests and lay Christians proclaimed this faith to me, though, depended on their personal commitment and integrity. The faith would have been, and would be, just as true if they were revealed to have been frauds, but — and this is the key point — I wouldn’t have taken them seriously if their actions hadn’t lined up with what they believed, and if the inner light inside of these men and women hadn’t shone into some dark corners of my own soul, and called me out of myself.
There has never been an era of the church in which the bishops and the clergy have all been saints. But this may be the first era since the conversion of Constantine in which the need for saintly church leadership been as great. (Let me underscore that this is not true only of Catholics, but also of Orthodox and Protestants.) And not just leadership in the institutional church, but also in families. I was thinking this morning, driving my son to a class, that if my children are going to hold on to the faith, they’re going to have to see it lived out in their own family. I am the spiritual head of my family. With that comes awesome responsibility. I have to live in such a way that I become a reason for my children to believe that I have chosen the correct path through life, not a reason to abandon that path as a lie.
I know other Christian mothers and fathers who take their responsibility for their children’s spiritual lives just that seriously. They know — we know — what our kids are up against in this culture. It is not too much to expect that our bishops take their spiritual leadership at least as seriously as we take ours. If bishops and cardinals and patriarchs are not prepared to be holy, then they should resign. They are not helping any of us; in fact, by making a mockery of ideals like holiness, justice, chastity, and authority, they are laying crushing burdens upon us, all for the sake of maintaining their privileges.
The world has changed, and they don’t even know it. This next pope, and all future popes, will govern in a world in which, thanks to the Internet and the democratization of media, it will be harder to conceal grievous wrongdoing. As Jesus told his apostles (Matthew 10:26):
So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.
Do not be afraid. Tell the truth, and say it loud. It’s more important than you may think.