Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The strange case of Keith Cardinal O'Brien

 I had better get today's post up while it's still today.  It's rambly.
CARDINAL Keith O’Brien is being investigated for sexual misconduct in the Vatican on the very night he was made a cardinal, The Herald can reveal. The cardinal is alleged to have assaulted a priest at the Scots College in Rome in October 2003, hours after being awarded the red mitre by Pope John Paul II. The priest, who is Scottish but now based in London, made a formal complaint to the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops last September, after which Cardinal O’Brien was summoned immediately to Rome.
The complaint, which was dealt with by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, who was one of the early front-runners this week to become Pope, was the first which eventually led to the cleric’s downfall and is not from one of the four complainers whose allegations were made public last month. It is understood the complaint involved an attempt to grope the priest, who was known to Cardinal O’Brien. Alcohol had been consumed at an event in the Scots College attended by many priests who had travelled to Rome especially for his elevation. Scots based at the Vatican also attended.
We think we know hypocrisy when we see it it. When we read about Cardinal O'Brien above we tend to think we are seeing hypocrisy. But is that hypocrisy? Let's walk around this and look at it from a few different perspectives.

We usually think of a hypocrite as someone who preaches one thing while doing another. I don't think that is enough though. Take, for example, cowardice. Many of us admire and praise bravery while worrying, generally with good reason, that we wouldn't live up to what we praise in a really tough situation. If I really meant to be brave but collapsed in fear in the heat of battle I am not being a hypocrite. We might be inclined to call that a failure of will but not hypocrisy.

We take it that the hypocrite never intends to live the way they advocate others to do. But ...

Here is the problem, on the other end of the scale, a complete charlatan is not a hypocrite either. Someone who clearly only pretends to praise a certain kind of behaviour while planning all along to to the opposite is reprehensible to be certain but we mean something else by "hypocrite".

Let's go back to Cardinal O'Brien again. Here are a few sentences from O'Brien's Wikipedia page:
Before his elevation to cardinal, O'Brien had been regarded as "liberal" on the issue of homosexuality, noting the number of homosexual priests in the Church.[12] In 2005, O'Brien rebuked Bishop Joseph Devine who had suggested that homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in Catholic schools commenting, "I don't have a problem with the personal life of a person as long as they are not flaunting their sexuality."[13] In December 2004 he told members of the Scottish Parliament that homosexuals were "captives of sexual aberrations", comparing homosexuals to prisoners in Saughton jail.[14]
I've left the footnotes on that so you can look them up if you want. The quotes are interesting in retrospect.  It's hard not to suspect he was quietly justifying his own behaviour when he said,  "I don't have a problem with the personal life of a person as long as they are not flaunting their sexuality." That doesn't suggest hypocrisy. That suggests someone who is afraid of being shamed.

Even when, in other contexts, he criticizes same-sex unions, he isn't being a hypocrite.
"The empirical evidence is clear, same-sex relationships are demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, no compassionate society should ever enact legislation to facilitate or promote such relationships, we have failed those who struggle with same-sex attraction and wider society by our actions.”
He may well have believed, probably did believe, that his own experience bore this out. Looking at his own life and his own failure to control his sexual impulses, O'Brien could without the least hypocrisy argue that facilitating such behaviours in others was not to do them any favours.

Consider, by way of analogy the case of an alcoholic who can't stop drinking but wants laws that will make it more difficult for others to drink to excess. I'm not asking you to believe that homosexuality is analogous to addiction but merely to imagine how the world appears to someone who does believe that. His own behaviour, then, would not be evidence of hypocrisy. He feels lots of guilt about what he is doing but cannot stop it.

The presence of actual alcohol in the case tends to reinforce that. There are lots of cases of men who think of themselves as heterosexual when sober but who pursue sex with other men when drunk. Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy were like that. It could be that such men are secretly gay or in denial about being gay but it could also be that they became rank opportunists who lost all sense of restraint and pursued the most accessible sex partner when drunk. Had a willing woman, or susceptible fifteen year old girl (or boy), been in the room at the time ...

And let's not make this only about men: it's not hard to imagine women doing similar things.

Again, we should hesitate before calling that hypocrisy for which of us really knows what we might do if we were loosened up after a few drinks and the opportunity for sex that we would normally disapprove of on moral grounds became a possibility.

Okay, but I hear someone say that there ought to be some self-knowledge and self mastery with time. O'Brien was 65 years old the night the alleged events took place. (Corrected from an earlier version: Alleged events because while he has admitted that some things really happened we don't know if he has admitted to this particular event.) You can't claim that raging hormones got the better of you at 65.

And that, I think, is the real problem. And given that, I wonder how useful a concept hypocrisy is. O'Brien advocated self control to others while being a failure at it himself but what lesson are we meaning to draw from that? That he should have been able? For many of his critics mean to say that it was inevitable that he would fail at trying to deny his sexual impulses and that, far from trying to restrain them, he should have quit the church and married another man. No matter which way you go, it seems less like hypocrisy than some other sort of moral mistake.

I'm going to shift gears here a while and talk about shame and guilt. Which do we mean to invoke when we call someone a hypocrite? If someone really just wants me to feel guilty then public exposure of my failings is not absolutely necessary. A public accusation of hypocrisy is always to invoke shame.

And when is it acceptable to shame another? I can't justifiably do it just to hurt someone who has hurt me. And here the waters around the accusations against O'Brien get murky. What was the point in exposing him when he was exposed. The priests who came forward with the accusations against him could have done so any time in the last decade. Why wait until just before he was about to leave for the conclave? Was there reason to believe he was going to grope other cardinals and that they needed to protected from him?

The waters are further muddied by the fact that O'Brien had in fact tendered his resignation back in November. It was not accepted at the time and we don't know it it eventually would have been accepted if the accusations had not become public. We further don't know if his accusers knew of his resignation. In any case, the coincidence of the accusation and the conclave does not seem to be accidental.  It could be that the accusers merely wanted to prevent him from participating in the conclave but that seems unlikely as his one vote wasn't going to make that much of a difference. More likely, these accusations have been around for a while and it could be that the people who wanted him gone were not trying to shame O'Brien into finally taking action so much as they were trying to shame the church into doing something about him. If you asked me to guess, I'd say the latter.

And I think you can find evidence for this right in the story I quoted at the top of this.
The cardinal is alleged to have assaulted a priest at the Scots College in Rome in October 2003, hours after being awarded the red mitre by Pope John Paul II.
That's a barb aimed at Rome. For why has the church been so slow to take action? To avoid shame. O'Brien appears to be a serial sexual harasser who sexually pursued people under his authority but does not, at least on the evidence so far, seem to have pursued teenaged boys. Having this revelation come out, however, would still hurt the church's reputation. It would shame it. So you can see how the temptation to let him quietly retire without making a big thing of it could take hold of the hierarchy.

So what would you do if you knew about all this and you wanted him out? In that case the conclave to elect a new pope would seem like a Godsend. Now you can really shame the church into action. And that is obvious from the nature of the accusation above. If you want to get the media upset, you play on the nature of the abuse and make it sound as horrible as possible. If you want to influence Cardinal Marc Oullet, you hammer home the point that this guy was making a mockery of the church by saying that on the very night of his being named a cardinal, O'Brien got drunk and and groped a priest.

And that is what they did. And it worked. Well played really. But for our purposes, the point is that they also zeroed in on the real hypocrisy. O'Brien made a mockery of the very vocation he vowed to live and the church seemed willing to let that slide so as to avoid bad press. The hypocrisy was not with the Cardinal but with the hierarchy.

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