What can we learn from the fall of Cardinal O’Brien?

We must learn from the O'Brien scandal

So, what are we Catholics going to learn from the recent events surrounding the fall of Cardinal O’Brien? Are we going to shrug it off, move on, and hope it is all forgotten? Or are we going to change things so that the Church we have will be more the Church that God wants? For the truth of the matter is that the O’Brien affair is a theological matter at heart, and represents not just one man’s tragedy (though it is that as well) but an ecclesiological failure. It is an example of the Church failing to be itself.

When I made a brief appearance on Newsnight last week with Catherine Pepinster, she said something that I agreed with, namely that we have to look at celibacy again. She is completely right. We have to revisit celibacy, we have to renew our understanding of celibacy, we have to rediscover celibacy as a theologically rich concept, not as some legalistic and attenuated “discipline”. To look at celibacy again is not the same as abolishing celibacy (which I think would be a terrible mistake).

So, that is the first thing, a ressourcement, as they call it, in the matter of celibacy. We certainly cannot carry on as we are. Nevertheless, there are obstacles in the way of an intelligent conversation about celibacy. One is the defensive attitude of some in authority that sees any discussion as a coded attack on the Church. That is something we need to get over. And we also have to face up to the most difficult thing of all. Being honest is hard, particularly when we have been so dishonest for so long. Not everything in the Church’s garden is flourishing. Those who have pointed this out in the past, and who have denounced scandals, have not won any sympathy for it. We have all been part of a conspiracy of silence, in that we all know of priests and religious who are not living as they should – but we do not dare say anything about it. After all, as Cardinal O’Brien himself could tell us, people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. What we need in this matter is leadership, and leadership from someone who has made a huge success of the celibate life, and whose life is an inspiring example of what it is to live for God alone.

The next thing that needs to be examined is the way that our bishops are appointed. Currently this is in the hands of the Papal nuncios and the Congregation for Bishops of the Roman Curia. Andrew Brown remarked in an article the other day that: “The central administration of the Vatican is plagued by corruption allegations and obstructionism. It functions too much like the rest of Italy… The Italian model of politics doesn’t even work in Italy. You can’t run a global organisation on those principles.”

As certain perceptive commentators have said, the process that led to the appointment of Keith O’Brien as bishop and later Cardinal was clearly flawed. In that this was an appointment that should never have taken place, the blame for that lies with the Nuncio of the time and the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops of that time. Either the system is not working per se, or else the system did not work on that occasion for particular reasons. Indeed, if memory serves, the moment when Cardinal O’Brien was raised to the Sacred College was a difficult moment in the Roman Curia, which was divided by infighting during the twilight of John Paul II’s pontificate.

How can such mistakes be avoided in future? I do not want to see elected bishops. You only have to consider the folly of the recent election of Police Commissioners in the UK to imagine what that would be like. But I would like to see wider consultation, and a consultation process more worthy of the name. A priest working in a nunciature once told me that the questionnaires they receive are not useful in making choices of bishops, thanks to the quality of the answers, and often the nuncios are stumped by the lack of information they have to go on. Above all, let us remember Andrew Brown’s words. The Italian way of doing things – what is called raccomandazione – no longer works, even in Italy.

Raccomandazione means literally recommendation; that is, the appointment of people not through open and fair competitive examination, but through word of mouth; thus people get jobs because of who they know, or because they have someone powerful ‘behind’ them. This is, incredibly, how people are appointed to positions in universities in Italy, including Pontifical universities. And it is also how bishops are made, and how Curial officials rise through the ranks. If you are raccomandato da qualcuno then you have a career path. Fr Marcial Maciel, the notorious priest who led a double life, had several very powerful people ‘behind’ him, who made him untouchable for years, until Pope Benedict acted and sentenced him to a life of prayer and penitence. Raccomandazione used to be the way the British Civil Service worked until it was reformed by Gladstone. That the Roman Curia is still using this system is a sign of just how out of date it is; and it is the root cause, surely, of the bad appointments, the corruption and the inefficiency that mark it out.

We need a reforming Pope who will cleanse the Augean stable. And we need to pray that such a Pope will be elected, and that God will give him the strength he will need in the task ahead. Incidentally, the election of a Pope is the only appointment I can think of in the Church that does not depend on raccomandazione. In the Conclave, who you know, and who is behind you, is all left at the door. Who you are is all that matters. Maybe we need conclaves in all diocese when the sees are vacant?