Reflections on the Church Hierarchy

February 2005By Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C.

In February 2004 the NEW OXFORD REVIEW published an article of mine criticizing Archbishop Keith Patrick O'Brien of Edinburgh, Scotland. I had by chance encountered him in Rome at the time of John Paul II's 25th anniversary celebrations, in October 2003. That same week, Archbishop O'Brien and 30 other prelates were elevated to cardinal. Reviewing some remarks in which he had dissented from Church Tradition, or at least from protocol, I concluded that O'Brien was a "loose cannon on the barque of St. Peter."

Since then, the Cardinal has continued to speak his mind. But on at least two occasions he has done so in ways that have delighted traditional Catholics. So I wonder if an apology may not be in order. I will say this: If O'Brien is a loose cannon, we need a dozen more like him in a hierarchy inclined to elevate prudence above all other virtues.

So what did the man say? In August 2004 he attacked Scotland's proposed sex education program as "state-sponsored sexual abuse of children." Cardinal O'Brien warned that if the Scottish Executive persisted with its plans, it would ignite a firestorm from parents determined "to preserve their children's innocence and to protect their childhood." Decades of value-free contraceptive-based sex education had proved to be "a complete and utter failure." A "growing army of sex health service providers" was encouraging "abusive behavior which if repeated outside a classroom could result in criminal proceedings against the perpetrators."

In an article for the (London) Sunday Times, O'Brien said that the draft program "called for sex-education for pre-school children as young as three and four, dismissed abstinence and suggested a widening of access to contraception and abortions for pupils without parents' consent." He also noted that funding "for sexual health strategies appears to be inversely proportional to their success."

What is remarkable about the Cardinal's comments is that he took the offensive in the culture war. He showed leadership, in other words. In recent years, cardinals and archbishops have almost never done this. They search instead for some prudent formulation that they can represent as consistent with Church doctrine, while minimizing conflict with the secular powers that be.

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