Cardinal's ministry likely to be remembered for manner of his leaving it


Cardinal had liberal reputation until man who would be pope made him toe line

There must be glee in Stonewall today. Set up in 1989 to promote equal rights for gay people it awarded Cardinal Keith O’Brien its Bigot of the Year Award last November for his attacks on proposals to legalise same-sex marriage.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph last March the cardinal said civil partnerships involving gay people were “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved” while “the repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense”.

He bemoanded that politicians were not “derided” when they suggested “jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning.” Instead, he continued, “their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged”.

He said same-sex marriage “would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father” and accused the British government in the context of being “staggeringly arrogant.

No government, he pointed out “has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.”

Later he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that if same-sex marriage were legalised, “further aberrations would take place and society would be degenerating even further than it already has into immorality”.

Yet Cardinal O’Brien had in the past been regarded as particularly compassionate where gay people, incuding gay priests, were concerned. He even chastised colleague Bishop Joseph Devine for suggesting that homosexuals should not be allowed teach in Catholic schools. So what happened?

Perhaps a clue lies in an article for The Irish Times by a priest of the archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh in May 2005, a month after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.

Fr Steve Gilhooley wrote: “In 2003 my archbishop, Keith O'Brien, was made cardinal. In interviews he was asked about the role of women, contraception and homosexuals. He said he wished to see a church which was open to discussion. Cardinal Ratzinger was reported to be ‘incandescent’.

“He summoned the papal pro-nuncio of Britain in order to stop the archbishop becoming cardinal. By Canon Law this could not be done. He forced Cardinal-elect O’Brien to make a humiliating retraction/ profession of faith.”

The sudden resignation of Cardinal O’Brien and particularly its context may add a certain piquancy to the delight of his critics but it is at once a personal tragedy, however true or otherwise the allegations, and a serious embarrassment to the Catholic Church in Scotland. It is a minority church in what has not always been a warm environment.

Cardinal O’Brien received a live bullet in the post before the pope visited Scotland in 2010. A note with it, from the “Protestant Action Force”, said he would be shot if the pope arrived. With just eight dioceses and 667,017 faithful out of 5.16 million Scots, most of its adherents are descended from Irish emigrants.

Cardinal O’Brien is one such. He was born in Ballycastle, Co Antrim on St Patrick’s Day 1938, when he was christened Keith Michael Patrick OBrien. He attended primary school there before his family moved to Scotland where his father served with the royal navy.

As with Pope Benedict, it is likely his ministry too will now be remembered for the manner of his leaving it.