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Tension behind a resignation

01 March 2013

THE resignation of two elderly men, both well past normal retirement age, would not, as a rule, be front-page news. The departures this week of Pope Benedict XVI and his Scottish archbishop Cardinal Keith O'Brien have, however, created a considerable disturbance in the Roman Catholic Church. The period of time since the announcement of the Pope's abdication ( News, 15 February) has not diminished the shock felt at such a move, the first papal abdication for 600 years. It is a measure of the RC Church's present low standing that the cause, at least, of Cardinal O'Brien's resignation - allegations of "inappropriate" conduct made against him by four priests - has provoked less surprise. Cardinal O'Brien is contesting the allegations, but already the taint of them is colouring attitudes towards the RC Church in Scotland, in the same way as the sex-abuse scandal in Ireland has undermined the Church there.

Too little is known about Cardinal O'Brien's accusers to judge their motives. Although the allegations appear to have been made before Pope Benedict announced his abdication, one of the four has said that they wished the conclave in Rome which will choose the next Pope to be "clean". The effect of the resignation has been to remove a vote from the conclave - a vote that, despite Cardinal O'Brien's outspoken support of traditional moral positions over the years, might well have gone to one of the more liberal candidates (if any such exist). Just a week ago, the Cardinal said in an interview: "It is a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own." There will be those in the Curia who will not regret the absence of a man who voices such views.

Cardinal O'Brien has denounced homosexual partnerships as "grotesque" and "aberrations", telling an interviewer on a previous occasion: "I think if the UK does go for same-sex marriage it is indeed shaming our country." It has been known, of course, for those troubled by their sexual desires to be among the fiercest critics of those who give in to them. Motel-room encounters (and pleas for forgiveness for them) are, for example, part of the stock-in-trade of US televangelists. The summary acceptance of the Cardinal's resignation, a month before his 75th birthday, means that he now has the unexpected leisure to mount a defence. It also means, however, that the Church is free to hold its line on clerical celibacy, despite mounting evidence that such a course is unwise and increasingly hard to defend.

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