JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.7.12
IT WAS just a year ago, on 20 July 2011, that the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny stood up in the Dail to make his speech on the publication of the Cloyne Report, into the abuse of children by c Catholic clergy in Ireland. It was an astonishing address, described by many commentators – both in Ireland and far beyond it – as the political speech of the year; for in 12 short minutes, in simple, hard-hitting language driven by the kind of conviction rarely heard in modern political discourse, Kenny effectively ended the deference to the church that had shaped the life of the Irish republic since its foundation in 1921.
Kenny’s argument was straightforward, and amounted to this; that in failing to protect the children in its care, in covering up for abusive priests, and in allowing them to continue to damage vulnerable children and young people under cover of clerical authority, the church had effectively prioritised its own status and power over the suffering of children, and betrayed its founding principles of “radicalism, humility and compassion”. And he added that the “pilgrim church” of the past now needed to become a church truly and deeply penitent, for the horrors that it had perpetrated, hidden and denied.
It was a brave speech, clearly delivered from conviction rather than calculation; yet in its aftermath, the Taoiseach’s approval ratings soared, as people responded to the rare sound of an elected politician speaking truth to unaccountable power. And I thought of Kenny’s mighty speech this week, as I sat watching something probably best described as its polar opposite; the mumbling, indirect, ill-informed, and strikingly heartless anti-gay insinuations of the Archbishop-elect of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, delivered on camera during a debate in Oxford.
Tartaglia suggested, without naming names, that the recent death at 44 of gay Labour MP David Cairns might well have been a consequence of his homosexual way of life. To the great distress of Cairns’s bereaved family and partner, he made this insinuation without factual evidence, apparently under the influence of a current campaign, by the global homophobic right, to suggest that same-sex relations are not only morally wrong, but are instantly punished with a spectacular series of health problems, hushed up by liberals in the medical profession. And as Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the Scottish Government’s bold decision to go ahead with the legalisation of same-sex marriage, Bishop Tartaglia and his spokesman Peter Kearney contrived, between them, to create a picture of the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland that might have been designed to fit Enda Kenny’s unflattering description of their Irish counterparts – arrogant, dysfunctional, and intellectually and morally discredited by their determination to prioritise the power and status of their own institution, over the elementary demands of truth and compassion.
For the more I consider the conduct of the Catholic Church in this debate, over the last few years, the clearer it becomes that this is not simply a matter of disagreement over whether same-sex relationships are right or wrong. Archbishop Tartaglia, like Bashir Maan of the Glasgow Islamic community, believes that homosexual relationships can never be right; he will not sanction same-sex marriages in Catholic places of worship, and the new law will not compel him to do so.
What is truly chilling, though, and almost embarrassingly ill-judged, is the self-centred arrogance of the church’s conduct in this affair: first in their high-handed attempts to suggest that they have a right to define the meaning of marriage for believers and non-believers alike; then in the sheer intellectual incoherence of their slide from moral condemnation to cheap health-scare mongering; and finally, most shockingly, in the lack of basic compassion and respect for gay people that was most tellingly revealed in Archbishop Tartaglia’s hurtful and inaccurate speculations about the death of a man he knew, and at whose funeral he helped to officiate.
For the truth is that even if David Cairns’s death had been associated in some way with his own life decisions, it would not be the place of Philip Tartaglia to make public comments on the matter, at such a time. None of us, after all, can be sure which aspects of our lives may contribute to our eventual deaths; the Archbishop himself looks as if he might be guilty of the occasional act of gluttony, but if he were to suffer a heart attack tomorrow, I am sure no one would be so lacking in compassion as to suggest that his death was the result of his own moral depravity.
And beyond that – well, just where is that profound humility that is one of the bedrock of the faith, and that, as Enda Kenny so eloquently pointed out, is particularly required of the Catholic Church at this time? To put it bluntly, if the Catholic hierarchy led by Benedict XVI had any living grasp of the faith they claim to represent, they would now be somewhere in the middle of a long decade of repentance and reflection, during which they would refrain – as a matter of decency – from pronouncing on the morality of others, until they have paid the price of their own abject failure. The New Testament is riddled with warnings to this effect; to attend to the beam in your own eye, before denouncing the mote in someone else’s.
Yet when I listen to the pronouncements of Scotland leading Catholic churchmen, I often wonder how long it is since they actually read those words; or left the embattled circle of their own colleagues and ardent supporters, to engage with a society which increasingly rejects their narrow and sexually obsessive definition of morality. In Ireland, the church seems to have reached some kind of endgame, as the state begins to seize church property, in order to pay compensation to victims of abuse. And in Scotland – well, we shall see. But a faith based on a petulant and confused defence of old social prejudices, combined with the recycling of cheap conspiracy theories, seems unlikely to thrive. And the church in which Philip Tartaglia now plays a leading role needs to return to the better principles on which it was founded; or to accept that it is finally running out of time.