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The Vatican's 'suffocating hypocrisy'

01 March 2013

Scoop: the Observer story last weekend

Scoop: the Observer story last weekend

THERE is not much need to dress up the news this week. The Observer's scoop on Cardinal Keith O'Brien more or less told itself. What was almost as surprising was the agreement that it produced among Roman Catholic commenters who would normally be at one another's throats. When Peter Stanford and Damian Thompson agree what the problem is, we have something as close to consensus as you will ever see.

So, was it the liberal or the conservative who wrote this? "The Cardinal has not been charged with an offence. But the juxtaposition of these allegations with his claim that universal celibacy is an unrealistic ideal illustrates the sexual tension that is pulling apart the Catholic priesthood. To put it bluntly, the new Pope must confront the suffocating hypocrisy of the Vatican and Bishops' Conferences on this subject.

"For example, I've never heard a bishop acknowledge what is obvious to so many of us: that in certain large cities in the Western world, a majority of Catholic priests are gay, albeit celibate.

"If the Vatican were to enforce its current ruling that homosexuals per se are unsuitable for the priesthood, then it would have in- numerable empty urban churches on its hands. And furious parishioners, too, since discreetly gay men often make wonderful priests. On the other hand, you don't have to be a homophobe to wonder whether it's healthy to have such an imbalance between the sexual instincts of priests and their flocks."

And which one wrote this? "It is impossible to sit in the pews and not be concerned by the present unhealthy state of affairs where a Church that in essence preaches that homosexuality is wrong attracts and admits so many gay men into its priesthood. It can scarcely make them effective as our future leaders if they are busy trying (and apparently failing) to suppress something at the core of their being.

"If we are to have the sort of root-and-branch examination Benedict wants of why the child abuse scandal happened, then the question of what prompts a vocation needs to be examined. I am not being so crass as to suggest that allowing a married priesthood would solve this problem at a stroke. Some of the most notorious child-abusers are 'happily married men'."

The second one was Stanford, and the first Thompson. When the Catholic Herald takes this sort of line, it's clear that the centre of gravity of English Roman Catholic opinion has shifted decisively - not so much because the Herald represents the voice of the Church, but because it is normally committed to dressing up the party line in the most glamorous possible frocks.

When the official line looks so ridiculous and indefensible that even the Herald argues that it can no longer be held, we can safely assume that the game is over, at least so far as the RC Church in England is concerned. In Scotland, things are probably much worse. O'Brien was in some ways the last standard- bearer for traditionally aggressive Scots-Irish working-class Roman Catholicism - he was born in Northern Ireland - and its many enemies will be delighted by his fall.

The Mirror and the Mail both used a photo showing the Cardinal laughing with a couple of children . . . and his old friend Jimmy Savile. This is mud that will never come unstuck.

IT HAS not yet crossed the Atlantic, though. When I poke around the New York Times site, the lead Roman Catholic story is still: "Catholics Gather in California, Haunted by Cardinal's Scandal". But this is Cardinal Roger Mahony. "For decades, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony was the convener and the star of the nation's largest annual gathering of Roman Catholics, which opened here on Thursday.

"The documents show that Cardinal Mahony helped shield priests accused of sexual abuse from the police, in some cases encouraging them to stay out of the state or country to avoid potential criminal investigations."

The Times in London ran a leader listing four cardinals, among them Mahony, who should not travel to Rome to take part in the election of the next Pope. So far, Mahony seems determined to do so.

Finally, in GQ magazine, there is a long investigation of the Vatileaks scandal containing one marvellous story that helps to explain how scandal can burst like a thunderclap from the stifling silence that precedes it.

A monsignor, living in the Vatican, was troubled by the noise of cats outside one of his dinner parties: "The monsignor got up from the table, retrieved an antique carbine, and fired a few shots out the window. The next morning, two nuns climbed to the roofs with buckets, into which they deposited a few dead cats. And nothing more was ever said about the incident."

How he must wish the noise of journalists was so easily stilled.

Paul Vallely

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