Séamus Ahearne…on reading ‘Cardinal Sin’ by Brian Devlin

Floating thoughts after reading from Brian Devlin’s book – ‘Cardinal Sin.’


I read ‘Cardinal Sin’ by Brian Devlin over the past few days. (Columba Books. 2021). Andrew Greeley’s novel: ‘The Cardinal Sins’ came to mind. The title is almost the same. A song – ‘The Cardinal Sin’ by the Australian duo with ‘Dead can Dance’ distracted me as well. The words of the song weren’t totally inappropriate. I had worked in the Diocese of Edinburgh where I had met many wonderful people and knew that God was very much alive in that place. I was also in regular contact with Keith O’Brien during his exile. He was like Napoleon on Elba. There were some similar traits of character in both of them!

This is a very sad book. It is sad due to the damage which distorted the life of Brian Devlin and many others. It was the break-down in trust. It was calamitous too in the break-down of faith. It smashed the core of prayer/priesthood/church for Brian. This man’s life was shattered. Others dealt with it differently but the scars were deep. Clearly Brian’s view of God; of Church; of priesthood; of bishops was deeply affected by this.

His story reminded me too on how most of us see things from differing angles. I often am surprised how children come out of the same family and remember home life as if they were reared in another family. Or how grown up children can recall school life and what a teacher did or didn’t do or how their fellow students behaved. It is remarkable how the perspective changes. Joseph O’Connor and Sinéad O’Connor speak of their family and the same mother in a rather nuanced way. John McGahern had a very sharp portrait of his father and a saintly image of his mother. It differed to his siblings. I know Rosaleen, Margaret and Monica did help him in his final book: ‘Memoirs.’

Brian Devlin paints a picture of his life. His childhood. His time in hospital. His school days. His time at Drygrange. His time at St Ninian’s. His view of student days and his depiction of student life is quite shocking. In the trauma of those days, the subtleties get lost of life in the college and elsewhere. The flaws he saw in the ‘system’ were real. If I got out my oils, my painting of college life and theology, might be quite dissimilar. But I wasn’t standing in his shoes or seeing what he saw. I recognise his broad strokes. His expression is very clear.

He names the extremes:

  1. The embarrassment and much worse if that is possible – of the outlook on Sexuality in Church life.
  2. The ridiculous nature of celibacy and the spiritualising of the reason for it.
  3. The cult of infallibility.
  4. The autocratic behaviour of those in power – with a messianic complex.
  5. The arrogance and curse of certainty.
  6. The utter chaos and unsuitability of seminary training.

But there is more. Much more. There is always a bigger picture. The black or white description, makes for clarity but is incomplete. Brian didn’t have long enough in priesthood to see much more. He arrived in Ratho. (I know it rather well.) He went to St Ninian’s and was very critical of Ian Murray and felt he saw all of Jock Dalrymple’s legacy being dismantled. But not many could live as Jock did or Michael Hollings in another place. Brian was paralyzed by seeing his assailant of the past now in charge of his life.

Brian’s view of Church is one image. There is another Church. There is another priesthood. There is a further version of faith. Be expansive. We are all flawed. We do have those clay feet. The old phrase is very true…. ‘But for the grace of God; there go I.‘ How often have the mighty fallen? The flamboyant have collapsed. Eamonn Casey, Michael Cleary and Keith O’Brien are examples. The ones we most needed in the world and practice of faith, to add life and wonder to the God-environment. The only answer always is – we have to see the bigger picture. There is more. We cannot ever be dragged down by the immediate and the few. We do reach for the stars. We have to.

Find the artist. Listen to the music of life. Go beyond the minimalist. Catch the beauty. Many join in the chorus of dismissal and again the caricature emerges and often becomes a coup. It takes over. It is a very noisy chorus. We cannot give in to the shouty ones. Mary McAleese is mentioned in the book. She is outspoken and appears to have taken on the mantle of those she condemns! Clarity and absolutes are dangerous. We need her but the noise is too sharp. There is much more for saying than the half picture. Brian Devlin speaks out of hurt and severe damage. He also writes in some ways with more heart and warmth than his story deserves. He does paint in broad strokes. His dealing with the Nuncio Antonio Mennini, Marc Ouellet and then Charles Scicluna was interesting. The Quartet (of Edinburgh) did much better than Tony Flannery! Leo Cushley came into Edinburgh. He had an impossible job. It was a hurting and divided diocese. He couldn’t do right with doing wrong! Everyone has to step back and strip away the accretions. It is God we are talking about and celebrating.

Accept failure. Don’t sink into the mire. Focus on God. Build faith. Create a new image of ministry and priesthood. Be humble. Brian Devlin also sets out to suggest that there is a way forward. He even admits that the values he received and the outlook of Jesus Christ is challenging and full of wonder. He cautiously hints that he is somehow still a priest. But he wants to paint a very new portrait of priesthood and of church. He attacks the humbug and the institutional stupidity, and wants healing for everyone and everything that has corroded the institution. He even is willing to say that all institutions are inclined to stagnate into bureaucracies of mini fiefdoms. Brian Devlin was traumatised by what happened him in the Church and somehow wants all of us to learn from his experience. He does so not by condemnation but by being a witness to the truth. We have to learn from him and listen.

The funeral of Keith O’Brien took place on the 5th April 2018 at St Michael’s in Newcastle. These were the words that Brian Devlin would have liked to have said as a homily: “We are a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns, at the end of the day, Keith. Despite our difference in status and the roads travelled, we’re united by one common reality: that we are all flawed. I’m not less a sinner than you. …… let’s bring about that reform that is essential.”

Brian was very aware of ‘human frailties’ and ‘a broken Church.’ But there is a way forward.

Seamus Ahearne osa



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  1. John Anthony Waters says:

    That the catholic church does a lot of good in the world is generally
    accepted. Through its policies it is also the indirect cause of criminality.
    I refer to its denial of the civil right of would be priests to marry. This
    stupid rule is antihuman, and of no logical benefit to the church. All over
    the world it has cost the church millions of dollars in abuse compensation.
    Every mature man both lay and clerical, if honest, knows the immorality
    of forced celibacy. Catholic priests worldwide could and should organise
    themselves together and bring about an end to the celibacy rule. It could
    be done if the will was there.

  2. Noel Byrne says:

    “Betrayal by Silence – the Collapse of the Irish Catholic Church – has it a future?” by Dr. Tony O’Dwyer is a must read for many on this website. Dr. O’Dwyer is a former Columban Missionary priest. This 600-page volume was published by Print Bureau, Dublin 8 in 2019.

  3. Mary Vallely says:

    I don’t want praise to go to your head, Séamus, but my goodness, your writing is a tonic to my soul, your understanding, compassion and your overall measured tone. Despite it all, the cruel injustices and the arrogance of many of the ordained ( that’s what happens when you put a man on a pedestal and are not allowed to question him) you remain hope- filled.

    “The arrogance and curse of certainty” was one of the extremes mentioned by the very brave and honest Brian Devlin in his book. I had never seen that written down or discussed. I nodded my head in sadness at each one of those extremes mentioned.

    What are we supposed to be but followers of Christ and yet, how do we regard each other? There should be no barriers of status between us. We are each of us struggling to follow the Gospel teachings and that is a hard enough task!

    Honestly I am so glad I read your thoughts here, Séamus. Had been put off reading Brian’s book as feared being dragged down into negativity and an almost despair at learning yet again about more human suffering caused by fallible and weak human beings.
    Thank you so much for writing. Guigh orm. Beannacht Dé leat.

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