A cardinal in name alone

cardinal o'brienPope Francis yesterday took the unusual and rare step of remoing a cardinal’s rights and duties, and on the cardinal’s own request. Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, retired archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh asked for the removal of all his rights and duties in the wake of a report about the accusations of sexual abuse against him which appeared several years ago. In 2013 this was also reason for him to retire as archbishop and not to attend the conclave that elected Pope Francis.

There was some confusion as to whether Cardinal O’Brien was still a cardinal, but it would appear that he remains one by name only. He no longer has any duties in the Curia (he was a member of the Pontifical Councils for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples; for Social Communications; and for the Family), including the right to attend and vote in future conclaves (although, being 77, the chances of Cardinal O’Brien taking part in the election of a new Pope were slim anyway), or to attend any future consistories. Gcatholic.org also indicates that he has lost his title church, Santi Gioacchino ed Anna al Tuscolano.

Cardinal O’Brien is not the first cardinal to have lost his rights and priviles that come with the red hat, although it hasn’t happened since 1911, when French Cardinal Louis Billot, who asked Pope Pius IX to accept his resignation as cardinal, allegedly since he supported the nationalist Action Française movement, which the Pope had condemned.

Other cardinals resigned their titles for rather different reasons. Intitially, back in the fifteenth century, a number of pseudocardinals (cardinals created by a pope who was not accepted as legitimate) lost heir titles for supporting an antipope. Other cardinals wanted to lead a simple life of solitude, mostly in a monastery or other form of religious life. The most recent example of this is Carlo Odescalchi, who resigned because he wanted to enter the Jesuit Order. He did so in 1838, three years before his death.

A more secular reason for cardinals to resign was, since they often came from the nobility, the fact that their families had no male heirs. In 1807, Cardinal Marino Carafa di Belvedere resigned for this reason, became the prince of Acquaviva and married.

Political reasons could also lead to cardinals resigning. In 1788, Pope Pius VI made Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne a cardinal, but the latter never went to Rome to accept his red hat and title. He later accepted the terms imposed by the French revolutionairy government. The Pope severely rebuked him for his disloyalty, after which Cardinal de Loménie de Brienne resigned. In 1793 he was jailed, and he renounced his faith for fear of his own safety.

Other cardinal resigned or even refused to be created cardinal since they considered themselves unworthy of the honour or simply too old.

The reasons for cardinals to resign have been varied, but Cardinal O’Brien’s case remains unique in that he has been allowed to keep his title, even if he has lost everything that comes with it.

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The questions of O’Brien

Cardinal Keith O'BrienAlthough his resignation was generally expected to take place some time in the coming months, it was still a surprise that the Holy See today accepted the resignation of Keith Cardinal O’Brien, the archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh. It did so in accordance with canon 401 § 1 of the Code of Canon Law, which covers the obligation of a diocesan bishop to offer his resignation as he reaches the age of 75. Cardinal O’Brien will reach that age next month and, according to his official statement, his resignation had been accepted “nunc pro tunc” back in November.

But is that the whole story? Of course, we must treat carefully here, because it is all speculation, but that speculation arises from some recent developments surrounding Cardinal O’Brien. He has recently been accused of sexual misconduct by three priests and one former priest from his diocese, stretching back over the past 30 years. Cardinal O’Brien strongly denies these accusations, but they unavoidable raised questions about what, if anything, really happened. And today, his unexpected resignation as well as his decision not to attend the conclave, has raised even more questions. But any answers will most likely depend on ecclesiastic and secular legal actions, if and when they take place. For now, we have the cardinal’s word and explanation to go on.

Cardinal O’Brien has stated that he will not travel to Rome next month, although his resignation does not prevent him from attending, because “I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focussed on me – but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his Successor.” That means that 115 electors will participate in the conclave. As reported earlier, Ukrainian Cardinal Husar will reach the age of 80 tomorrow, before the sede vacante begins, and Indonesian Cardinal Darmaatmadja will stay at home because of health reasons. Great Britain will have no elector at the conclave, although the United Kingdom will, since the Irish primate, Cardinal Brady, resides within Northern Ireland.

Cardinal O’Brien has been archbishop of Scotland’s primatial see since 1985, and he was created a cardinal in 2003 with the title church of Santi Gioacchino ed Anna al Tuscolano.

Photo credit:  Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images