What would David Cairns make of Archbishop Tartaglia?

I'm sure I'm not the only person in Scotland today angry at comments made by archbishop-elect Philip Tartaglia.

Most of us wouldn't even have heard of this man until this week, but in a few short days he's managed to create quite a storm with his illiberal, irrational and highly judgmental pronouncements on equal marriage and homosexuality more generally.  The appointment of someone who frankly makes Cardinal Keith O'Brien look like a bit of a pussycat has to be bad news for Scotland and the Catholic Church - something picked up on by James Kirkup in the Daily Telegraph who speculates that Tartaglia is a "saboteur", bent on "a work of destruction...to harm the institution he has pretended to love."  Of course, that can't be entirely true because it would require a level of sophistication unknown to Tartaglia, but the point is well made.  This reflects very badly on the Catholic Church and, it must be said, Christians of other denominations.

Those of us in the LGBT community, and many like-minded liberals, will know that Tartaglia has been given more media attention in the last few months than he merits and has generally used such opportunities to express his opposition to marriage equality in no uncertain terms, labeling it "cultural vandalism" and "unnecessary".  We simply saw him as yet another reactionary Catholic bishop, of which there seem to be quite a few. He didn't seem particularly exceptional.

What has come to light in the last few days, however, has been particularly poisonous - demonstrating ignorance, arrogance and blatant prejudice that is unbefitting of any leader - even one within an institution famed for its intolerance. By some quirk of fate, with delicious irony, his "message" coincided with the Scottish government finally announcing it would legislate for marriage equality and his misinformed intervention went some way to underlining the need for action.  

It's one thing for some church leaders to disagree and hold to a different view; something on which I've made my personal views clear elsewhere.  I might not share their perspectives, but I understand where they're coming from and why they think as they do.  When Philip Tartaglia makes unfounded claims linking homosexuality with physical and mental ill-health and compounds it with an erroneous interpretation of the medical reasons behind the death of an MP, I think an apology is in order.  Not simply to the MP's partner and family, but to the church and wider Scottish society - and the LGBT community particularly.  

The MP in question was David Cairns, the former MP for Inverclyde.  He was my MP.  I knew him.  He helped me on some local issues, worked with me to challenge then health minister Andy Kerr on a particular matter and was a thoroughly decent human being.  We had our differences - notably on electoral reform - but there was also a fair bit we had in common.  I knew he was gay and admired his intellectual honesty in developing a broadly liberal approach towards "moral issues" (as witnessed by his voting record) that many in his church struggled with.  As a former Catholic priest and chair of the Socialist Christian Movement, I found his Christian testimony to be a positive one of tolerance and acceptance.  In short, he was a decent local MP, an honest politician who was willing to (and did) resign his post as a minister, someone who was determined to serve his constituents effectively and a rare human face of Catholic faith in action. He was someone I wish I'd known so much better and on a more personal level; something that may have happened if he hadn't tragically been taken from us at the age of 44.

Little more than a year after David's passing, Philip Tartaglia (I won't call him Archbishop, as he plainly doesn't deserve that title) decided to make some unwise moral points about David's death, through which he makes wild and judgmental inferences about the lifestyle of someone he clearly didn't know as well as he claims.  What he actually said was this: "If what I have heard is true about the relationship between the physical and mental health of gay men, if it is true, then society is being very quiet about it. Recently in Scotland there was a gay Catholic MP who died at the age of 44 or so, and nobody said anything, and why his body should just shut down at that age? Obviously he could have had a disease that would have killed anybody. But you seem to hear so many stories about this kind of thing, but society won’t address it."

That is a very loaded statement and one which suggests something that is patently untrue.  David Cairns actually died of acute pancreatitis, something that is tragically often undetected and affects many young people.  To claim that his death is in some way connected to his sexual identity and lifestyle is a grotesque lie, and a deeply hurtful one at that.  It is little surprise that David's partner has been offended by this outburst, stating that "I can't believe that someone who claims to be a man of God and is seeking to give moral leadership should speak from such a position of ignorance.  I don't care what his views on gay marriage are, but to bring in my dead partner to justify those views is wrong."  Indeed.

Tartaglia seems to have had a unifying effect on local people in Inverclyde - including may Roman Catholics who respected David as a member of their community and as their MP.  Politicians of various parties have expressed their disgust at Tartaglia's ignorance, none more eloquently than Labour's Tom Harris who mused that "the bishop is entirely ignorant of David's life and death.  It is a great pity that someone in such authority is coming out with such ill-informed tripe.  David's friends and family have been through an awful lot in the last year and it is a great pity that the bishop adds to their distress for no other reason than his own ignorance...I was privileged to be one of David's closest friends.  His friends and family have spent the last year trying to come to terms with the tragic loss from complications arising from acute pancreatitis.  [The] public assertion that David's illness might be in some way connected to his sexuality and lifestyle was not only unsupported by evidence, but was, I fear, unworthy of [Tartaglia's] position as a leader in the Church."

It's not too often that I find myself agreeing with Tom Harris but on this occasion I do.  Entirely.  Tartaglia should resign.  He has, to date, claimed that his comments were taken out of context and were made in relation to an unexpected question at a public meeting.  "In his reply he mentioned a situation he had been closely involved in, namely the funeral arrangements for the late David Cairns" said a spokesman.  Well, we've all seen the reply and that defense of it is wholly inadequate.  There is no mention of a funeral, only a darkening of a dead man's reputation.  He also claimed to be "sorry for any hurt that has resulted" but this falls far short of a full apology.  He doesn't recognise his own cruelty.

I am offended not only by the unwarranted attacks on David Cairns but also the broader assault, and the ignorance shown towards, the wider LGBT community. To suggest in a public forum that mental ill-health is directly attributable to homosexuality is as offensive as it is wrong.  Speaking as someone who has worked in adult mental health for many years, where there are parallels between mental ill-health and sexuality, these are usually in relation to complex identity issues and where individuals feel oppressed or stigmatised because of who they are.  If Tartaglia genuinely wishes to improve the mental well-being of LGBT people, he could perhaps start by changing his, and his church's, approach towards them?  I know of many more people experiencing mental ill-health whose problems are directly attributable to the Catholic Church; maybe Tartaglia would like to comment on that?

I can only wonder what an honest, hard-working, person-focused, empathetic, tolerant and accepting Roman Catholic like David Cairns would make of Tartaglia's misinformed bigotry? How could such a positive example of practical Christianity be actively blackened by the contempt and intolerance of a bishop too keen to express a view before actually acquainting himself with the facts? Tartaglia represents everything that David Cairns was not, and everything David openly challenged when he encountered it. I don't wish to put words into the mouth of someone who is no longer here and who I only knew on a professional level, but I'd guess he'd oppose such bigotry with a "not in my name" attitude.  I'd take a guess that if Tartaglia had made similar remarks about someone else while David was alive, David would have been the first to criticise his bigotry and challenge it head-on.  Certainly, Tartaglia should not speak for the Catholic Church and he definitely doesn't speak for David's former constituents - of all religious persuasions and of none.  


Anonymous said…
We know your views Andrew and you are a entitled to them but l dont agree with them and you dhould post them on your own behalf and not as implied here The Scottish Liberal Democrat.
Andrew said…
David Cairns' partner, Dermot Kehoe, contacted me via twitter to say: "I liked your blogpost about David. Very well written." Many thanks Dermot.
Andrew said…
Hi anonymous (I'm guessing it's Robert posting),

I don't see what you don't agree with. You mean it was right for the Bishop of Paisley to make this intervention? Do you think it is appropriate that Mr Cairns' family should have to be put through this cruel ordeal? I understand and happily accept that not everyone will agree with me on equal marriage, but that's a distinct issue. Personally I feel that Tartaglia has seriously overstepped the mark with this one.

You might disagree that Cairns was a good MP? Fair enough, but I'm not a tribalist and don't mind admitting someone's done an excellent job if they happen to be from another party.

As for "posting comments on my own behalf and not for the Scottish Liberal Democrats" - well I do! I state this explicitly on my blog, in a rather tongue in cheek way: "Thoughts expressed on here are Andrew's own and in all likelihood do not reflect those of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. At least he hopes they don't." And, on my twitter page: "Thoughts expressed are not those of Nick Clegg". But what I think you'll find, especially if you read the press releases coming out of Lib Dem HQ, is that on this I'm pretty much consistent with the Lib Dem line, which I personally find well-informed and, well, liberal!

I'm certainly not going to be silenced by someone who won't even reveal their identity publicly.

I never imply that I speak for the Scottish Liberal Democrats - as you should know, I'm too independently minded for that! And, if you have issues with the Lib Dem approach towards either marriage equality or how the leadership perceives Catholic bishops who speak out of turn (who Rennie referred to at conference last year as "an affront to a liberal democracy") then I propose you take your objections to the appropriate people.
Anonymous said…
Excellent post, Andrew.

I wonder what the qualifications are for becoming a bishop in today's Catholic Church. Not deep thought, decency, or respect for the recently bereaved, it would seem.

I was brought up to believe that the Christian church was first and foremost about love; indeed I have seen a lot of good work done by Christians of many different denominations, reflecting that love of people, of humanity, which was espoused by Christ.

I can find not a spark of humanity, never mind love, in anything this man has said.

I disagreed with David Cairns on many subjects. He was a Scottish Labour MP; I was an SNP member. It went with the territory.

However, I learned to respect a man of principle and high personal standards.

It was desperately sad that he died so young leaving a grieving partner and family, and a constituency much worse for his passing.

I'd have thought that, given the recent (and possibly not so recent) history of the Catholic church regarding matters of a sexual nature, it might have been an idea to keep a reasonably low profile on this subject.

It seems strange to me that the Church finds itself so able to speak out about mental illness associated with sexuality, and yet managed to stay so silent for so long about celibacy and paedophilia, whist paying out millions of parishioners' weekly contributions in compensation to its victims.

I'm glad Mr Kehoe liked your post, I hope that knowing that people respected Mr Cairns, and deplore what this stupid man has said.

I hope Tartaglia apologises personally to Mr Kehoe and Mr Cairns' family for his ill-informed ignorant, bigoted insults, and that this, at the beginning of his elevation to bishop, will serve as a lesson to him, one I learned at primary school; to think before he pours out his hatred and bile out in public.

What would Jesus do?
Andrew said…
"What would Jesus do?"

Which one - the Jesus I read about, who extended love and acceptance to those society rejected, or the legalistic Jesus that Tartaglia, O'Brien and a large part of the Roman Catholic hierarchy seem to know?

It is said that God made man in his image. That cannot be true. Man is consistently remaking God in his own image and, in the case of Tartaglia, that is the most uncompassionate, inhuman god imaginable.
Stuart said…
Who is the guy writing the first comment? You seem to know him Andrew? He seems a strange Liberal Democrat to me.

If he thinks that you're out of sync with your party on this one then he's in cloud cuckoo land. I'm not a Lib Dem but to be fair when it comes to equality and standing against homophobia I take my hat of to you. How this guy finds anything to object to in what you've written I don't know. Seems pretty sound to me.

I remember David too, didn't know him well but seemed a top guy and hard working MP for us. Knew he was a priest which makes this even more surprising. If the bishop took care of David's funeral, what business does he have making speculations about the cause of his death? if my mum died and the local priest carried out her funeral rites only for months later to make wild claims about her lifestyle, I'd think he was at the very least being unprofessional and disrespectful.

Good post anyway, I don't know what David would think of the bishop, probably not very much. His partner doesn't anyway and I see he made a positive comment here.

People like you Andrew are the future of the Lib Dems and I would vote for you so don't be put off by mindless comments like that.
Gerry said…
I have just read your blog regarding Philip Tartaglia, and I have to say I agree with every word you have written. What people like Tartaglia need - and what they don't really cope well with, is being publicly challenged.