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Why do churches think they have a right to dictate politics?

Where former Cardinal Keith O'Brien is concerned, one statement is not disputed: he spoke his mind.

You might have detested what he had to say, but you couldn't deny the force with which he said it. Cardinal O'Brien fought his corner, even when the corner was – says this observer – indefensible.

It made him a powerful man. When Cardinal O'Brien spoke, politicians listened. When his perfectly timed statements reached the news media, the media paid attention. The cardinal spoke, after all, on behalf of Scotland's Roman Catholics, on behalf of his faith and of faith generally. Who could argue with that? The possibility that the people he represented didn't always agree with him was no deterrent.

Did he have the right? The question involves one of the oldest conundrums in the democratic tradition. If the cardinal had the right, was it exercised to the benefit of Scotland? This is not a reference to particular cases – though God knows – but to the relationship between Scottish politics and what these days we call faith groups. It leads to a third question: what now?

Unlike Professor Tom Devine, I'm no historian. I can't tell you that the Roman Catholic Church faces its biggest crisis since the Reformation. What I can say is that since devolution church people – persecuted on all sides, apparently – have been making big efforts to influence public policy. Cardinal O'Brien was the most vociferous among them. Now he's gone, obliged to resign. "No stranger to controversy", as the instant cliche runs. So what influence remains?

The spirit is still willing, no doubt, generally speaking. Those who find gay marriage (or whatever) obnoxious will not cease to speak out. But Cardinal O'Brien's departure, in the circumstances as we understand them – given one side of the story – puts a hole in the idea that churches have a kind of constitutional right to representation in our politics. It does some harm, too, to the idea of civic Scotland.

The question has been asked before in this space: who are these people? You can name them – churches, trade unions, charities, universities, professional bodies – and be none the wiser, in terms of democracy. You might once have called them the great and good. These days you get to cheek fine, upstanding people with a rude question: who elected you, then?

Cardinal O'Brien used the notion of civic Scotland with certain subtle refinements. He was party to the conceit when it suited, at arm's length when the estate seemed to veer away from what the Vatican would endorse. Such was his right and duty, no doubt.

He was wily enough, too, not to be trapped by the old "higher loyalty" charge, even when it was true. Did he place Rome's edicts above Scottish democracy? Certainly not, as he would probably have said. He placed the Bible in that position.

As often as not, the strategy reduced critics, this one included, to arguing over a theology to which they did not subscribe, or to explaining that, miraculous as it might seem, atheists can acquire moral principles without the guidance of a higher authority. All of that was beside the point, but it suited the cardinal.

One paradox of democracy allows anyone to put conscience before the will of the majority. We've all done it, by thought or deed. Cardinal O'Brien did it by asserting, time and again, that his conscience, born of faith and ruled by his church, made biblical teaching paramount. The paradox can be extended: which real democrat could have challenged the cardinal's right to such a position?

The trouble is, for the faithful, that the rest, the majority, also have rights. To win them over you have to engage in the political game, provocative statements and all. Do that and you begin to forfeit any claim to special status. Do that and then be forced to resign, as Cardinal O'Brien has been forced to resign, and your fight in faith's name becomes just another political scandal. Political consequences ensue.

You won't catch me regretting it. If a small country's politicians lose their ingrained habit of deference to the authoritarians of faith, it won't be a moment too soon. If Cardinal O'Brien's fall has the effect of making it easier to legislate for gay unions the scales have been balanced, just a bit. Why gay people should then wish to be joined in a Roman Catholic church given the views expressed by the cardinal is another, stranger matter.

Part of the idea of civic Scotland has to do with the conceit that institutions glue society together. A bit of faith, a piece of intellectual capacity, the solidarity of labour or professional self-interest: melt these in one pot and have your national community, supposedly. It overlooks those who are excluded, which would be most of us. It also mistakes a collection of vested interests for a community. Some involved with vested interests don't deign to stand for popular election.

Cardinal O'Brien spoke his mind. What came forth? The demand, mostly, that we attend to his words because his appointment had given him a claim on our attention. That looks – the perception might be proved false – a little foolish now. Politicians are rarely perfect: some of them have hung juries on the CV to prove it. A dispensation is still given to the godly regardless. That seems, right now, a bit stupid.

I fully expect the Roman Catholic church to continue its battle against gay marriage, with less eloquent faiths following behind. The arguments against abortion won't end soon: if you think the procedure involves murder, conscience must rule. But if democracy means anything, princely rank counts for nothing. With luck, Cardinal O'Brien's hurried retirement might persuade a few of our politicians to trust their own fragile consciences.

Better still, they can remember their primary obligations. Those were contained in the wee rude question: who voted for you? Anything else, tricked out in the feathers of civic Scotland and "community" or not, is hypocrisy. There's a lot of that about just now. Some would even call it a nauseating glut.

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