Tom Devine: Crisis-hit Church must renew and get relevant

WHEN I was asked to respond to the revelations regarding Cardinal Keith O’Brien, my first reaction as a historian was: “This is potentially the gravest internal crisis to hit the Catholic Church in Scotland since the Reformation.”

It was not intended to be a controversial soundbite but an honest response. Yet before much time had passed the comment had been widely transmitted by TV and radio, and eventually to over 600 newspapers across the globe. A few opinions were critical but numerous e-mails and blogs also came my way agreeing with the perspective on the enormity of what had taken place.

Now that all of us, both apologists and dissenters, have had time to draw breath, there might be an opportunity to convert my own one-line statement into a more reasoned argument. Yet after long and careful thought, I stick by the immediate reaction I gave when the news broke.

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Since the victory of Protestantism in the 1560s, the Catholic community of Scotland has endured no end of tribulations – persecution and exile in the 16th and 17th centuries, the appalling revenge of the Hanoverian state on districts of Gaeldom loyal to the old faith after the defeat of the Jacobite risings, generations of bigoted and racist prejudice against Catholic Irish immigrants and their descendants in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, and, more recently, the vindictive enmity of a small but vocal number of dedicated arch secularists who see Roman Catholicism as their principal foe.

But external forces were not to blame for the events of the last fortnight; these were self-induced and emanated from the heart of the senior ministry of the Church itself.

Some have argued that strife between Irish and Scottish clergy in the Victorian era, which eventually led to direct intervention from the Vatican in the Church’s affairs, was of greater significance than this.

I beg to differ. Those tensions never exploded into the public domain on the present scale; they were essentially internal conflicts over power and governance with no trace of accusations over the moral behaviour of the parties involved, and no victims were abused in the process. The present crisis is different. The Catholic Church is hierarchical and demands absolute obedience to its teachings. The resignation of a former leading figure in that hierarchy – one of only three resident Scottish Cardinals since the Reformation – under a very black cloud is a monumental public scandal never before experienced in the history of Scottish Catholicism.

Further, the whole story has been played out before a global audience. In addition, the high profile of the hierarchy which the Scottish Catholic media office has skilfully nurtured over the years was likely to attract massive public interest and dismay when there was such a spectacular fall from grace on the part of one regarded as a moral guardian of the nation. The accusations of breathtaking hypocrisy which would come as a result were therefore entirely predictable, as The Tablet, the leading Catholic journal in the UK, asserted this week. Archbishop Philip Tartaglia has rightly admitted that the moral credibility of the Catholic Church in our country has been seriously damaged by this episode.

But all is far from being lost.Out of crisis can come renewal and opportunity, if well-managed, not least because of the evidence of Scottish Catholicism’s long and courageous history of resilience in the face of adversity. Many modern Catholic scholars now see the Reformation itself in a different light from the past, as a necessary call to purification of Catholicism, leading eventually to the Council of Trent which was then followed by the energetic and creative responses of the Counter-Reformation. Could this not be another such time in history for the global Church, where out of the gathering darkness can come the light of purification?

I for one do not recognise the current media caricature of a dying Church distinguished only by falling congregations and ageing clergy.All the priests I know are holy men totally committed to serving their people and spreading the message of the gospels. Many are pastors to parishes which are vibrant and dynamic, belying the spurious image of a faith in terminal decline. Numerous Catholic charities, such as the remarkably successful Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) and Mary’s Meals, routinely practice the fundamental Christian ethic of “love thy neighbour”, in developing countries across the world; and these are only two among very many such worthwhile activities. Catholic schools are regularly acclaimed by the inspectorate and academic commentators, and are increasingly popular choices by non-Catholics for the education of their children because of the kind of environment which they offer.

Moreover, the episcopal hubris which led to some harmful pronouncements in the past, and which many of the faithful deplored, has now been dealt a fatal blow. As a result there is already a growing sense that humility must be the way forward. The forthcoming appointments of a new generation of bishops in most Scottish dioceses could not have come at a more propitious time. Their leadership and the impetus to a fresh start will be critically important in the years ahead. The laity, and especially women who already contribute so much in so many ways, ought to be given a greater role as the People of God in the governance of the Church, while also acknowledging the spiritual leadership of bishops and priests. Sensitive consultation and listening has to replace arrogant diktat. Above all, the recent obsession with sex and gender issues should go, replaced by loud voices on behalf of the poor and the disadvantaged who increasingly suffer in a society poisoned by gross inequality, materialism and hedonism. Jesus Christ confronted these evils over 2,000 years ago; so should his successors today.

• Tom Devine is Personal Senior Research Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh