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A crisis of faith

THE resignation in February of Pope ­Benedict XVI caused a shock of seismic proportions both inside and outside Catholicism.

He was the first Pope to resign in almost 600 years and people wanted to know why. It was bruited that he had simply had enough. Moreover, at 85, he was too old and infirm for a job which demanded the attention of a younger man.

Father Frederico Lombardi, the papal press spokesman, suggested as much: "The Church needed someone with more physical and spiritual energy who would be able to overcome the problems and challenges of governing the Church in this ever-changing world."

The rumours persist, however, that there was much more to Benedict's dramatic resignation than this. His papacy had been beset by one scandal after another, with accusations flying of cover-ups, maladministration, power struggles and corruption, all of which he was ill-equipped to cope with. Meanwhile, stories flew around the Vatican of a network of gay priests exerting undue influence.

One of the sources of Benedict's headaches was to be found in Scotland. Its leader, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, was forced to resign less than a month after the Pope's departure, after accusations emerged of inappropriate behaviour towards priests.

Ironically, O'Brien had been an outspoken and intemperate critic of homosexuality. His resignation, as he was about to travel Rome to take part in the conclave to elect Benedict's successor, shook the Catholic faithful in Scotland to the core.

Indeed, many Catholics could not accept that O'Brien had done any wrong. There must be some kind of conspiracy, they argued. Who were these four priests who had accused him of inappropriate behaviour? And why were they making public their claims at this time?

But it took just 36 hours from the story emerging to him succumbing to the inevitable. As Catherine Deveney, the journalist who broke it, explained: "This is not about the exposure of one man's alleged foibles. It is about the exposure of a Church official who publicly issues a moral blueprint for others' lives that he is not prepared to live out himself."

In a word, the cardinal was a hypocrite. And for once the Church was disinclined to protect someone of his eminence. By its swift and decisive action it demonstrated first its belief that what the four priests had reported was based in fact and second that it realised it could no longer keep its head in the sand.

Denial - the usual fallback position - was no longer an option.

As ever in such cases, however, the cardinal was not subjected to public scrutiny. Nor did he answer in person to his congregation. Instead, he was quickly spirited out of the country and has not been seen since, leaving many in the pews bemused and bewildered.

Now all eyes focused on Italy's capital and the small state within it. Who would the next Pope be? An Asian cardinal or an African? But when the puffs of white smoke emerged over St Peter's Square, it was an Argentinian who emerged victorious.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was said to have been runner-up to Benedict in 2005. Initially, he was not believed to be the kind of man who upsets apple carts. One newspaper said he was "a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues".

There was good reason for this conclusion. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio opposed government initiatives to legalise gay marriage and make it easier for women to get abortions. Of same-sex marriage, Bergoglio once said: "It is a manoeuvre of the devil" for which he was described as "medieval".

As Pope, he took the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, who was known for his empathy with the poor, his love of animals and his yearning for peace. In the 13th century, he lived a simple, ascetic life in the Tuscan countryside.

It is an example his namesake appears to be attempting to follow, most notably by eschewing some of the more glamorous and extravagant trappings embraced by other Popes.

Instead of living in the Apostolic Palace, he has a modest two-room apartment. The papal Mercedes has been replaced by a Ford Focus and he dines often among other clergy. It has also been said that he goes out incognito at night into Rome to visit the poor.

In a recent profile of him in the New Yorker magazine there was an account of how, on Holy Thursday, the day on which Jesus washed the feet of the 12 apostles, Pope Francis visited a prison rather than perform the rite in a more prestigious setting. There, he washed the feet of a dozen inmates, of whom two were Muslim and two were women.

FOR such acts, and for helping to transform the image of the Church in the space of a few months, Francis was dubbed Time's Person of the Year. Unlike his predecessor, his message is less hardline, more conciliatory, more Christian.

"Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?" he remarked of women who consider having an abortion because of poverty or rape. "If a homosexual person is of goodwill and is in search of God, I am no-one to judge," he has said.

Whether this will lead to fundamental change within the Catholic church is unlikely. When, for instance, it was a reported that a woman might be appointed to the College of Cardinals it was brusquely dismissed as "nonsense" by the Pope's spokesman.

In that respect, the Church of Scotland is ahead of the curve. Its current Moderator is Lorna Hood, the third woman to hold the symbolic if largely ceremonial role. Hood's chief job was to chair the General Assembly, the Kirk's equivalent of an annual general meeting.

This year it was dominated once more by the issue of gay clergy, prompted by the calling in 2009 of an openly gay minister, Scott Rennie, to a parish in Aberdeen.

Yet again the Kirk managed adroitly to stage-manage the debate with the aim of preventing a damaging schism.

It will be another year at least before a decision is finally taken.

What appears clear, however, is that the Kirk is moving in a manner unacceptable to a few of its more evangelically minded ministers and congregations whose interpretation of the Bible makes them unsympathetic to the acceptance of homosexuality. So far, though, just 11 ministers have left.

Meanwhile, the Kirk in general, like its Catholic counterpart and Muslim organisations, is opposed to the Scottish Parliament's approval in principle to introduce legislation allowing same-sex marriage.

Campaigners say they will target MSPs in marginal constituencies who are in favour of it at the next Holyrood elections.

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