Sex, the Church, and the Cardinal

Oh dear. Yet again the Roman Catholic Church has managed to bring itself into disrepute over sex. One feels the need to mangle Oscar Wilde: that to make a right royal sexual cock-up once might be considered a misfortune, but to do it repeatedly, indeed constantly, looks like carelessness. Not that carelessness even begins to cover it. The Church has managed, at every turn, to substitute rules for principles, obfuscation for clarity, and lies for truthfulness.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s catastrophic fall from grace, in a display every bit as spectacular as that of any unannounced meteor over Russia, seems almost to have been designed to concentrate all the Church’s confusions and dishonesties over sex – and gay sex in particular – into one super-saturated droplet of self-destructive poison.

Christianity’s moral principles could, at root, be distilled into two precepts: that we should consider others’ needs before our own; and that what we want is frequently not good for us, and even less good for others. Or, to put it more biblically, we should love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves, and love God even more than we love ourselves. When applied to our sexual behaviour this means simply that we are not at liberty to indulge our sexual desires merely for our self-gratification, and that to do so is to put at risk our own health (in a holistic sense, not merely in the sense of disease) and that of our sexual partners. This is, in itself, quite a sufficiently counter-cultural position to take in a society that seems increasingly to want to sexualise everything, and to idolise (in its literal sense) the obtaining of sexual pleasure and satisfaction. It was never necessary for the Church to over-egg that pudding by adding prohibitions on particular sexual acts, or particular couplings – still less for it to relegate sexual activity itself to some sort of barely permissible pastime that can only be justified by the procreation of children.

But the Church has got itself into a right old mess. It’s created a male-only environment, and then been gobsmacked to discover that it has attracted a lot of gay men. It’s demonised homosexuality, and then looked aghast as its gay priests have found themselves obliged to conduct their sexual lives undercover and clothe their public lives in layers of hypocrisy. Having created a sexual underworld, it now discovers that its secrecy and denial have permitted it to be colonised by paedophiles and all kinds of other purveyors of sexual deviancy.

Seen in this light it’s hard to know if Cardinal O’Brien is more victim or more perpetrator. His hypocrisy in speaking out so vehemently against homosexuality whilst, apparently, indulging in that very activity in his private life, is indeed breathtaking. But at the same time, it seems to me, he has been as it were entrapped by an institution that has simultaneously both created a homosexual culture, and also denied the validity of homosexual expression. It can surely be no surprise that such contradictions have produced so much damage and human tragedy.

The cardinal’s sin isn’t really his hypocrisy, still less his homosexuality. It’s his lack of moral courage. Ultimately, I can’t condemn him. He is a victim, no less than those priests who so belatedly exposed him. Indeed, they are all victims of a Church that has got it all wrong about sex. And until it starts to get it right, there will be more sexual scandals, more cardinals exposed, more priests abused, and more victims in the pews.

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