In a long post, Rod Dreher takes the measure of the recent resignation of Cardinal O’Brien of Scotland in the wake of charges of untoward advances on seminarians and young priests some thirty years ago.
I have no particular desire to defend the honor, innocence, or reputation of Cardinal O’Brien. But I must admit that I’m mildly exasperated by Rod’s overwrought concerns. The Cardinal is accused of making unwanted advances on seminarians, and the coded language used by the media suggests that he may have used his authority over younger men to coerce them to have sex with him.
Cardinal O’Brien’s alleged conduct is rather more like professors pressuring their graduate students to sleep with them than molesting pubescent altar boys. It’s something to be censored and punished, but surely that fact that some men do these sorts of things doesn’t throw a normal person into a state of anomic horror.
But let’s leave that aside. If the allegations are true, O’Brien behaved shamefully. Nonetheless, this statement by Dreher gave me pause:
Cardinal O’Brien had a reputation for speaking out boldly for Catholic truth about homosexuality and marriage. He was called an anti-gay bigot by his opponents in the UK. And now, if these charges against him are true, he will have been shown to have been a roaring hypocrite, and the UK Catholic witness to Christian truth will be even more diminished and despised.
Come again? I am by no means without sin. I did after all grow up in the worst of the Sixties, which was actually the Seventies. It was a time of hedonism without idealism. Now I run a magazine committed to defending the moral truths taught be Catholicism (as well as Judaism and Islam, among other religions, as well as reason itself in some instances), some of which I have myself sinned against. Am I therefore a hypocrite? Has Rod never heard of confession?
Priests should be held to a higher standard, and etc. This is very true. Moreover, Rod’s right about the diminishment of Catholic witness. The sins of those who represent high moral ideals undermine both the spokesmen and the ideals. Yet we should be aware that we live in a paradoxically moralistic age that is uniquely unforgiving of those who affirm moral truths, especially rigorous ones, but don’t live up to them. That’s very likely because we have an only attenuated sense of office. Our culture is one of celebrity, not station. Much turns on personality; little on position. And so when the man falls, we can’t remain true to the office. When priests sin, we find it hard to believe in the priesthood.
Rod connects this to the general difficulty of belief in our secular age. I don’t mean to gainsay his account of his own spiritual struggles. We all have them. But mine are different. I’ve found belief easier, not harder as I have gotten older. And this is true even as getting older has meant a deeper exposure to the corrupt nature of our humanity, including my own. And it’s true even as getting older has meant a greater awareness of the diversity of culture, the contingencies of belief, and the fragility of faith.
Maybe I’m too postmodern. Maybe some sort of corrosive inner skepticism within me is so powerful that it even undermines the reasons to doubt. (That’s not farfetched. There’s a early modern tradition that sees skepticism as ministering to rather than undermining faith. Pascal, for example.) The same goes for the the sexual abuse scandals. Yes, of course I find it all demoralizing (in every sense of the word). But maybe my knowledge of my own sinfulness is so close and vivid that I’ve become hardened and insensitive. Whatever the reason, I must admit that I never and I still don’t find the dolorous news of clerical decadence, debauchery, and debasement a threat to my faith, anymore than I found the pettiness, lassitude, and dishonesty of so many academics a reason to doubt the noble calling of a life of teaching and scholarship.
There’s more to say about this, of course, but there it is. I deplore O’Brien’s alleged transgressions, especially insofar as they made others miserable, damaged the Church, and undermined people’s faith. But I don’t find them spiritually relevant to me. Or maybe the point is that I do, and because I believe even in spite of my sinfulness, I can in spite of his as well.