Trending: The turbulent priest with form for controversial comments


Related Topics

In the best tradition of Catholic archbishops, Britain's most senior priest is also its most turbulent. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph on 4 March, Cardinal Keith O'Brien called the prospect of gay marriage "grotesque", then likened it to the legalisation of slavery. Interviewed during yesterday's edition of the Today programme, he said the Government's proposed legislation would be an "aberration" that "shamed our country", "violated human rights" and caused society to degenerate "even further than it has already degenerated, into immorality".

The controversy-prone Cardinal was no less strident about civil partnerships when they entered the statute book, suggesting same-sex unions were akin to paedophilia: "What if a man likes little girls?" he asked a group of Scottish politicians in 2006. "Can he adopt a little girl and then just have a little girl at home?" Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell called him "a sad, sick man", but O'Brien speaks his mind on political issues – especially where he sees them intersecting with moral ones. He decried the replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system as "immoral".

He said he'd be "happy" if Scotland voted for independence. He invited Muslims to apologise for 9/11 and 7/7. When the US condemned the release of Lockerbie bomber Ali al-Megrahi, he criticised them for being "fixed on vengeance". In a 2007 sermon, he called abortion an "unspeakable crime" and equated the Scottish abortion rate with "two Dunblane massacres a day".

He also has previous with David Cameron's coalition: in February, the Scottish Catholic Church and the country's Deputy First Minister criticised the Westminster government, after it failed to invite O'Brien to join its delegation to the Vatican.

Since Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor retired as Archbishop of Westminster in 2009, O'Brien has been the only British Cardinal to also head an archdiocese. But as leader of the Church in Scotland, he speaks only for those 750,000 or so Catholics north of the border. And, as Catherine Pepinster, editor of Catholic weekly The Tablet, explains: "The Scots have a tradition in the Catholic Church of being far more outspoken than their counterparts [in England and Wales]. Cardinal Thomas Winning, Keith O'Brien's predecessor, spoke very frankly about his opposition to abortion and attacked Tony Blair for not speaking out against it."

Like many Scottish Catholics, O'Brien has Irish immigrant roots. Born in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, on St Patrick's Day 1938, he soon moved with his family to Scotland, where his father served with the Royal Navy at Faslane. He was ordained in 1965 but, thanks to his degree in chemistry, taught maths and science in schools during the early part of his career.

He was nominated Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in 1985 and was long considered to be more liberal than the likes of Cardinal Winning.

Rising quickly under the mentorship of Pope John Paul II – whose death in 2005 he compared to "losing a father or grandfather" – in 2003 he became only the third Scot since the Reformation to be created a cardinal. While in his public pronouncements he subsequently grew more traditional and confrontational, he retains a reputation for friendliness and joviality in private.

"He is a very warm man," says Pepinster, "and engages with great humour and kindness. He isn't at all grand. I once had lunch with him in Edinburgh and he asked me about my next appointment, saying he would fix me a lift. I assumed this meant he'd order a taxi or get his chauffeur to drop me off. In fact he drove me himself – not in an official limo, but in a very ordinary hatchback."

One church tradition involves giving each Cardinal his own "titular church" in Rome. Those who have worked the system to their advantage are often awarded with some grand rococo basilica in the city's historic centre. But, in a sign either of his humility or of his disdain for political machination, O'Brien's is a 1980s-built church at the end of a suburban bus route, close to Ciampino Airport – identifiable by the Cardinal's coat of arms above the door and the Scottish saltire fluttering alongside it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Database Administrator

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: The role could involve w...

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified secondary s...

Deputy Head of Science

£22000 - £36000 per annum + MPR / UPR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our cli...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

My limerick response to Mike Read’s Ukip Calypso

Simon Kelner
The number of ring ouzels have seen a 30 per cent decline in the last 10 years  

How the sight of flocks of ring ouzels helps to turn autumn into the new spring

Michael McCarthy
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London