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Matthew Parris

Gay sympathy for Cardinal Keith O’Brien

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

Were you to try to identify the sort of journalist least likely to feel sympathy for Keith O’Brien, I suppose you’d place near the top of your list a columnist who was (a) an atheist, (b) especially allergic to the totalitarian mumbo-jumbo of the Roman Catholic church, (c) gay, and (d) a strong supporter of the coalition government’s plans for same-sex marriage.

If so, this columnist regrets to disappoint. The downfall of the former Archbishop of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh has come to pass at least in part because he did not mince his words. I admire such people. As to O’Brien’s homosexual behaviour and the charge of hypocrisy… well, to that in a moment.

Keith O’Brien’s career has been distinguished by simplicity of expression. He’s been a bold and talented polemicist. Hateful as I and millions of gay men and women found his language about homosexuality last year, I found myself even at the time blessing the cardinal for this: he did not beat about the bush. Christians really shouldn’t. If hell existed there would be a particular place there for the sort of simpering Anglicanism whose audible embodiment is the piping susuration of the treble voices of boys whose balls have not dropped echoing rhythmless noise around a gloomy Gothic cavity of carved stone. Sounds with no edges, words with no meaning, drifting and melting in a big empty space. Some people find this sweetly senseless music beautiful. It makes me spit. I like to think Jesus would have ejected the choristers along with the money-changers. And then ripped out the organ and smashed the stained glass.

‘Yes, yes, very pretty,’ I like to think He would have said: ‘but what’s your argument?’ We heard O’Brien’s loud and clear. But I listened this week to a Today programme interview in which Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, descended into incoherence as he avoided saying anything spiteful about O’Brien while steering clear of warmth or sympathy; ducked the gay issue completely; and finally said nothing at all. Whatever else we may have thought of Keith O’Brien when he railed so intemperately against homosexuality last year, he did not duck. He made his convictions clear.


Or what we thought were his convictions. The Stonewall gay campaigning organisation’s ‘Bigot of the Year’ award, no doubt, O’Brien’s co-religionists can stomach. What must sicken them will be the impression given last week that the former cardinal was, after all, gay, or partly so. And so we come to the charge of hypocrisy.

The case can persuasively be made. The former cardinal (people will say) cheerfully pursued his sexual inclinations in secret while advancing his clerical career by lambasting others who did the same. O’Brien, I believe, will go to his grave without ever convincing the world that this accusation was unfair. I doubt he’ll even try. ‘Why bother?’ David Mellor once said to me when I urged him to expose newspaper lies that in his adulterous affair he had enjoyed wearing a Chelsea football strip and having his toes sucked. ‘Nobody’s interested in a verdict of “only two-thirds guilty”,’ he said.

So from the fallen cardinal, silence may be best. Yet I have no doubt that Keith O’Brien’s story is much more conflicted and opaque than a tale of simple hypocrisy. To begin to disentangle it, we should start with something I doubt a single gay man in Britain has not observed: the prominence among our tormentors of individuals who themselves turn out later to be homosexual, or partly so. A morbid interest in a topic is so often, in so many other areas of life too, an indication of complicity. Or as a friend put it, ‘The person who first mentions it, is.’ Or as someone else once put it: ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much.’ I shall labour this no further: it’s simply a fact; anyone will tell you.

If the fact is straightforward, though, the explanation is less so, and the easiest is often wrong. The easiest explanation is that a gay man persecutes gay men quite cynically, as a decoy, or as a means of advancing their own popularity. Some of my gay friends believe this is often the case. I think it’s rare. It doesn’t usually work for long, and it courts terrible danger. You or I would not advise an expenses cheat to lead a campaign against expenses cheating or an adulterer against adultery. It isn’t clever to draw an audience on to ground where we are vulnerable, and the rational part of ourselves knows that. O’Brien’s attacks on homosexuality were not in his own interests and I’m sure he saw the danger. I suspect he just couldn’t stop himself.

I remember (and many other gay men remember) a period in adolescent life, before we had even made up our minds about ourselves, when we would lead malicious and often disapproving gossip about more openly gay friends. I don’t know why I did it, but the phenomenon is well known. Maybe it’s the ‘nagging sore tooth’ syndrome; maybe curiosity; maybe an internal civil war. Ask St Paul. Whatever the explanation, it must begin from an appreciation that persecuting your own is not usually motivated by simple, cynical self-interest.

In a Catholic priest’s case, self-hatred is particularly likely to be involved. It is very, very common for a person to be almost reflexively alert to and nettled by traits in others that they observe in themselves. In the case of homosexuality, Catholicism adds to that reflex a whole theology of sin and guilt, overlaying upon self-awareness a seething mess of self-hatred. Is it any wonder that in both his private life and in his public pronouncements — though in directly contradictory ways — the former cardinal just couldn’t leave the subject alone?

Who killed Cock Robin? Who Killed Keith O’Brien? Was it the tabloids’ ‘gay Catholic mafia’, outraged at his homophobia? Was it the Vatican’s moral right, outraged at his late conversion to allowing priests to marry? Was it Catholic doctrine, turning desire into shame, shame into aggression, and aggression into self-destruction? Was it the careerist in him who saw advantage in queer-bashing?

Or was it the queer in him calling him to his own doom? Here is Laurens van der Post, on Carl Jung:

He called it the ‘shadow’ — a pattern that had at its disposal all the energies of what man had consciously despised, rejected, or ignored in himself… an image of what happens when the human being stands between himself and his own light… . The dark, rejected forces massing in the shadow of the unconscious, as it were, knife in hand, demanding revenge for all that man and his cultures have consciously sacrificed of them.


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