Volume > Issue > A Loose Cannon on the Barque of St. Peter

A Loose Cannon on the Barque of St. Peter


By Tom Bethell | February 2004
Tom Bethell is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C.

My wife and I made arrangements to go to Rome more or less as tourists. By chance, our visit coincided with the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s papacy, Mother Teresa’s beatification, and the latest Consistory. The only event we had arranged ahead of time was lunch with a cardinal, whom we had met a year earlier in the U.S.

The new Consistory was announced just before we flew to Europe. Before going on to Rome, we stayed for a few days in England, and there I contacted old friends — a well-informed Catholic couple who live near London. Information on the 31 new cardinals-to-be (one in pectore, meaning secretly) was sparse. The New York Times had little to say. The Pope was “further putting his mark on the group that will name his successor,” the paper said. The College of Cardinals is “already mainly made up of like-minded conservatives,” and so on. Whenever an archbishop is appointed to a major see, The New York Times tends to use the same word to describe him: conservative.

So I asked my English friends if they knew anything about the 31 new men. There was one big problem, they said. Archbishop Keith Patrick O’Brien from Edinburgh was the “worst bishop in Britain.” On the other hand, Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, who had been passed over, was “the best bishop in Britain.” Furthermore, Glasgow has many more Catholics than Edinburgh. Something had plainly gone wrong.

Having been nominated, but before going to Rome for his red hat, Archbishop O’Brien, who is 65, promptly gave a sermon in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. He said that the Church should be “open to discussion” on married priests, contraception, and homosexual clergy. Word of this dissent quickly got back to Rome. A few days later, O’Brien returned to the pulpit and affirmed his support for ecclesiastical celibacy and for the Church’s teaching on contraception and the immorality of homosexual acts. The Edinburgh Evening News reported that this retraction had been compelled by the Vatican. It was a “very public slap-down,” a spokesman for a group called Catholic Voice told the newspaper. But a spokesman for the Archbishop denied in the same paper that there had been any pressure from Rome.

Rome: Rainy one day, sunny the next. I find the city exhausting. The basilicas are grandiose, much more impressive than newcomers might expect. They were built at a time when the great and the powerful of this world still took the Church seriously. But getting around in Rome is tiring, the buses are overcrowded, the waiters surly, the pick-pockets busy. Soon enough, one’s legs are no match for the basilicas.

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