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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 May 2007, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
The 'Cardinal of Controversy'
Cardinal Keith O'Brien
The cardinal's strident views often disguise his jovial nature
Cardinal Keith O'Brien knelt in silent prayer deep inside the Vatican and paid a final goodbye to the Pope who had appointed him just 18 months earlier.

The Scottish cardinal was later to compare the death of Pope John Paul II to "losing a father or grandfather".

He had become one of the pontiff's most trusted lieutenants after a rapid rise through the Vatican ranks, and was tipped as a potential successor.

But the brief period of reflection beside the Pope's body as it lay in state in April 2004 was a rare moment of calm in the often turbulent career of the primate, who has previously been dubbed in the press the "Cardinal of Controversy".

The outspoken leader of Scotland's 750,000 Roman Catholics had once been seen as a relative liberal in the church, certainly in comparison to his predecessor Cardinal Thomas Winning.

Prior to being elevated to a cardinal by Pope John Paul II on 21 October 2003, when he became only the third Scot to reach the rank since the Reformation, he had expressed his openness to a debate on issues like priestly celibacy, women priests and contraception within the church.

But a series of media interviews in recent years have been interpreted as the cardinal affirming his commitment to a more traditional Roman Catholic morality.

His willingness to speak out regardless of what people will think is also more in keeping with the Scottish temperament in general - we just like an argument
Professor John Haldane
St Andrews University

Unlike many other faith leaders in Scotland, Cardinal O'Brien has not been afraid to wade into political as well as moral debate, causing shockwaves last year when he said he would be "happy" if Scotland voted for independence.

The remarks, six months before the Scottish parliament elections, were widely criticised by opponents concerned that they marked a blurring of the boundaries between religion and politics.

He has voiced fierce opposition to replacing the Trident nuclear missile system, called on Muslims to apologise for the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks, and once accused the devolved Scottish government of "child abuse" after they launched a new public sex education initiative.

The cardinal was later criticised for apparently linking new laws on gay marriage and adoption to paedophilia when he asked politicians: "What if a man likes little girls? Can he adopt a little girl and then just have a little girl at home?

"I would certainly say we are working towards the destruction of any sort of moral standards. We don't want this in our country."

Sectarian violence

The remarks caused gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell to retort: "The cardinal is a very sad, sick man. It is not what we expect from someone who claims to be motivated by the gospel of Jesus Christ of love and compassion."

His views on abortion too have brought criticism. When new figures revealed a record number of pregnancies were being terminated in Scotland, he likened abortion to murder and said politicians who backed the "social evil" should not expect to remain full members of the church.

Less controversially, Cardinal O'Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, has campaigned tirelessly against the "secret shame" of sectarianism in Scotland.

He cites laws forbidding a Roman Catholic monarch as evidence that society is "blatantly anti-Catholic", and has pointed out that Catholics in Scotland are more likely to be the victims of sectarian violence than their Protestant neighbours.

Cardinal O'Brien with Pope John Paul II
The cardinal said Pope John Paul II's death was like losing a father

Cardinal O'Brien recently attended a football match between bitter Old Firm rivals Rangers and Celtic alongside other faith leaders in a bid to defuse religious tensions, but has stated he does not believe football alone is responsible for the sectarian blight.

The cardinal can claim to have personal experience of sectarianism. Born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, on St Patrick's Day 1938, his family was forced to move to Scotland when he was a young boy.

His father had found it impossible to get work as a Catholic despite having served with distinction with the Royal Navy during World War II.

A slight Irish accent can be detected in his speech to this day, and he remains fiercely proud of being "an Irish-born Scot".

Respected religious commentator John Haldane, a professor of philosophy at St Andrews University, said the cardinal's hardline image was often at odds with his good-natured personality.

Prof Haldane said: "He is actually a very sociable, jovial man who genuinely likes meeting people. He says everything with a smile, and should not be mistaken for some dour harbinger of doom."

Immigrant roots

But Prof Haldane said the cardinal had been more inclined to toe the church's party line after his sudden, and possibly unexpected, elevation.

He added: "He suddenly realised the focus that would be placed on absolutely everything he said, and the responsibility that came with his new position. He was now speaking for the church, not just for himself.

"He is often perceived as being the Christian leader in Scotland rather than just the Roman Catholic leader because other institutions like the Church of Scotland don't have any kind of figurehead leader people can turn to."

The professor said the history of the Catholic Church in Scotland, which has large Irish immigrant roots, made it more "feisty" than its English counterpart.

"Compared to England, where the Catholic church has entered into the establishment, it still has something of the immigrant's sense of being the underdog about it in Scotland," he said.

"His willingness to speak out regardless of what people will think is also more in keeping with the Scottish temperament in general - we just like an argument."

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31 May 07 |  Scotland
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