Main Site         

The further aberrations of Cardinal Keith O’Brien

2012 March 6
by Paul Vallely

How long is it since Cardinal Keith O’Brien has read Plato’s Euthyphro? Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic has once again been airing his gift for vivid phraseology with an attack on politicians “indulging” the “madness” of gay marriage and decrying it as a “grotesque subversion”. He even compared it to slavery. Outrage followed all round, predictably enough.
So why Euthyphro? Plato’s dialogue too starts with a man outlining a premise which colours irrecoverably everything he has to say thereafter. Euthyphro in his arrogant righteousness admits to Socrates, when asked why he is on his way to court, “you will think me mad when I tell you”. He has decided to prosecute his own father for murder, following the death of a labourer his father had arrested for cutting the throat of a family slave. Euthyphro begins from a position which violated his listeners’ sense of what is right.

However impeccable our logic it fails when we begin from a premise that alienates so many of those we address. The government legislating for gay marriage, the Scots cardinal says, is like it legalising slavery while assuring us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”. Is it? Will it really be “the thin edge of the wedge” ushering in “further aberrations” with society “degenerating even further than it already has into immorality”? Will it “allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage,” violate human rights and “shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world”?

The cardinal would plead analogy and reductio ad absurdum extrapolation. But when we speak our whole meaning is not merely conveyed in our logic. We also insinuate our message by the vocabulary, images and metaphors we choose.

Cardinal O’Brien has form on this. In the past he has argued that abortion has proved a slippery slope. All the careful caveats of the 1967 Abortion Act were soon cast aside to allow abortion virtually on demand, resulting in the casual ending of seven million unborn lives. Many would agree, but his choice of analogy is what people remember.

The number of abortions in Scotland, he said, was the equivalent of “two Dunblane massacres a day”. Statistically, perhaps. But emotionally, most of the nation felt it grotesquely inappropriate to compare taking the morning-after pill with looking into the eyes of a six-year-old child and blowing her head off. “A man must be an extraordinary man, and have made great strides in wisdom,” said Socrates to Euthyphro, “before he could have seen his way to bring such an action. The majority of people must be ignorant of what is right”.

We have long ago left behind the central dilemma of the Euthyphro dialogue: “is something holy because the gods say it is good, or do the gods say it is holy because it is good?” Christian apologists have shown that the idea that God either issues arbitrary commands or else appeals to some greater external standard is a false dichotomy. Goodness is the essence of God, along with justice, compassion, temperance, prudence, love and the other virtues. “Evil, be thou my good,” is a nonsense to all but Milton’s Satan.

But truth emerges with the growth of human understanding. Tradition is the advice of the past. It is not God’s final word. As Wittgenstein pointed out, the idea that to understand the meaning of a word we have to find the common element in all its applications has muddled thinking through the ages.  Style can undermine substance, he might have told the cardinal.

Socrates, of course, barely touches on the substance of the dilemma he sets before Euthyphro. It is enough for him to demonstrate that a man who claimed authoritative knowledge of piety and morality was thoroughly confused about both.

from The Church Times


Comments are closed.