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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Sifting the rights and wrongs from the Hague kerfuffle

This Hague business has, as usual, generated very much more heat than light. Most commentators have fulminated at length on the story’s homophobic underpinnings, or on the unseemliness of dragging his wife’s miscarriages into the limelight, or on the unsavoury way in which the story came to public attention and the media’s subsequent feeding frenzy, or on Hague’s political judgement in putting out his extraordinarily personal and defensive public statement.

Fascinating as all these aspects are, they have frequently served to obscure the real issues. The story may have vile homophobic roots, but that doesn’t mean Hague has no legitimate questions to answer. The blogger Guido Fawkes may be a nasty piece of work (or a libertarian hero disinfecting the body politic – take your pick) and the media generally may have no sense of priorities (cf the largely deafening silence on the News of The World hacking scandal) but neither mean that there is no public interest, in the best sense, here at all.

So here’s my attempt to sort the wheat of legitimate concern from the chaff of prurience and arrant stupidity. Let’s get shot of the latter first.

  • There is nothing of legitimate public interest in the sexuality of ministers (except see first point in the wheat section below.)
  • Having, or not having, kids is about as accurate an indicator of sexuality as reading the Daily Mail is of the presence of an open-minded and intelligent approach to current affairs.
  • Sharing a room is not proof positive of a sexual relationship.
  • Being in the public eye means that the public will have its collective eye on you, and deciding to be a politician is to decide to be in the public eye, so it’s pretty pointless to complain when it gets uncomfortable.
  • There’s nothing wrong with being gay.
  • In case you missed that last point, I’d like to make it clear that there’s nothing wrong with being gay.

But having cast the chaff aside and burnt it in the fiery furnace of moral rectitude, there is still some wheat to be dealt with.

  • If as a man you make a song and dance about marriage, its sanctity, and your pure and untainted heterosexuality, it would be legitimate to hold you up to public ridicule if you were found with your legs wrapped around another man. That’s not what’s happened here, but in such circumstances “outing” a public figure would not be tantamount to homophobia.
  • Special advisors are there to provide special advice. That kind of assumes they have some special knowledge, knowledge that you could reasonably be expected to be able to point to if asked.
  • Such advisors are paid by the public purse, so we have a legitimate interest if they seem to be more concubine than advisor.
  • If someone says that because you have no kids you must be gay, you serve only to legitimise that stupidity if you drag your wife’s medical history into the business of refuting it.
  • If as a middle-aged man you repeatedly appear in public wearing a baseball cap, then at least one aspect of your judgement is up for being called into question.

And there you have it. Not black, and not white. I’m sorry about that, because I know lots of you want to be able to expostulate on one side or another of issues such as this without the inconvenience of having to deal with countervailing tendencies. Tough. I think it’s time you gained a little maturity and wisdom. Like mine, you might say…