Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cardinal O'Brien's resignation is an opportunity to reform Scotland's complacent and philistine Catholic hierarchy (Opinion)

Tom Gallagher, professor emeritus of politics at Bradford University, has sent me an article about Catholicism in Scotland that is so thoughtful and provocative that I'm reproducing it here in full. 

Prof Gallagher's conclusion is upbeat – but the picture he paints is of a sclerotic, philistine and arrogant Church whose weakness has been exploited with deadly effectiveness by the country's secular Labour/SNP/BBC/public-sector elite.
Cardinal O’Brien’s via dolorosa could well be a low road towards eventual oblivion for the bedraggled forces of Scottish Christianity. In Scotland, a defensive set of institutions seeking to uphold a Christian ethical code in the face of an apparently thriving secular culture has been on the retreat for some time.
A secular design for Scotland has flourished due to long-term intra-Christian strife in Scotland, robbing the Churches of broad authority. Operating most of the levers of state power, emphatically secular elites are determined to make their values the only ones that count through law-making and bold interventions at various levels of society.

The Green Party, far more influential than its two members at the Scottish Parliament, campaigns openly for the disestablishment of state-funded religious schools. Gay marriage was openly promised in the 2011 election manifesto of the ruling Scottish National Party. 

Both Labour and the SNP in their periods in offic, de-emphasised the stabilising role of mothers and fathers in their social policies for a country with some of the grimmest statistics for social breakdown in the Western world.

Arguably, the most influential minister in devolved Scotland has been Susan Deacon. As heath minister from 1999 to 2001, she overtly sought to repudiate the need for a Christian ethical foundation as the basis for social policy. She is the longstanding partner of John Boothman, head of BBC Scotland’s news and current affairs. It is no surprise that the elites in the public sector, the media and at Holyrood discourage any debate on whether untrammelled social liberalism is really a formula that can work for 21st-century Scotland.

Perhaps its high watermark is to nationalise marriage, which hitherto belonged to society as a whole, in order to accommodate a desire for same-sex marriages desired by a tiny minority of those who supposedly would benefit from such an arrangement. Few, if any Holyrood polticians, dare to offer dissent.

But a new Reformation in which secular pluralism will usher in Scottish improvements, perhaps in a post-British context, is nowhere in sight.

The secular liberal drive to increase regulation and uniformity, supposedly in the name of progress and fairness, is too coercive and too self-evidently an elite project, to enjoy real credibility. There is no unifying ideology behind secular liberalism other than perhaps a desire to end what remains of the Christian ascendancy over the minds and hearts of ordinary folk.

Atheism lacks a mobilising vision and has been unable to find a substitute for the social energy that often drove forward Christianity. It is impossible to envisage Irish emigrants facing a brutal struggle in Glasgow in the early 19th century embracing atheism rather than Christianity in order to provide a spiritual ark of survival.

An achieving atheism capable of improving living communities has still to emerge. What it usually entails is scepticism and a posture of disengagement from the problems of society and the promotion of nihilistic polices like abortion-on-demand, and euthanasia which enjoys influential backers in elite Scotland.

A Christian ethical foundation may have shrivelled in a lot of once recognisably devout Scottish communities, but a new moral order shorn of the need for religious belief is nowhere in sight. Individual churches are still more effective in offering a moral vision for coping with some of the acute challenges in Scottish society – drug dependency and other addictions, youngsters unable to find a place in the labour market, children and young people growing up in dysfunctional families and without role models enabling them to avoid harm. 

Most still belong to the Church of Scotland but tensions between a liberal bureaucracy and evangelicals could soon lead conservatives to conclude that only outside the established Kirk will they be able to effectively preach Christ’s ministry.

It would be wrong to claim that the Catholic Church has never tried to equip itself for the harsh terrain in which it now operates. Glasgow’s archbishop in the final quarter of the last century, Thomas Winning, unfurled a pastoral plan meant to harness the untapped energy of the laity and encourage the most dedicated among them to relieve priests of some of the burden of parish work as well as pioneering new forms of catholic engagement. But it came perhaps 30 years too late and most of his priests preferred to be left in peace.

The main achievement of Catholic Scotland has been the 95-year-old system of state funded Catholic schools which attract many non-Catholic parents and pupils. Supporters say that the emphasis on a moral dimension in the curriculum provides many pupils with a sense of citizenship and is a partial antidote to the consumer and celebrity culture which pervades Scottish popular life.

But many intellectuals were alienated by the decision to break up the centralised Scottish Catholic archives and transfer them from central Edinburgh to distant Aberdeen. It was the vanity project of a recently retired archbishop and Cardinal Keith O’Brien, a man supposedly with a flair for public relations, simply nodded it through.

Just what are pesky archives worth these days? 

But the affair shows an inability to be a proper guardian of the church’s historical patrimony and, on the part of many (not all) of the bishops in general, it suggests an underlying philistinism. The refusal to dialogue with over 90 historians who protested at the arbitrary nature of the decision shows a dangerously complacent hierarchy.

The Church leadership in Scotland has not learned from painful recent episodes in the life of the Church in Ireland and elsewhere, that a lack of transparency and refusal to permit dialogue only brings in its wake considerable discredit. 

It remains to be seen whether the peremptory exit of Cardinal O’Brien will lead to narrow retrenchment or else will unlock energies still present in the Church but with less emphasis on figureheads and insistence on stultifying conventions lacking even doctrinal legitimacy. 

If there is Catholic renewal in Scotland and a willingness to cooperate with those in other faiths who see that cult-like nationalism and secular posturing offer few answers to Scotland’s ills, this personalised church crisis could yet bring a lot of good in its wake.

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