06/03/2013 11:54 GMT | Updated 05/05/2013 06:12 BST

Lip Service To Celibacy In The Catholic Church

Calls for the reform of the Church from within have been ignored, if not actively silenced over the last 30 years or so. Only those who support a sort of mushrooming hierarchy of powerful prelates and dreadnaught Vatican dogma flourished under the dead-leaf papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

A hypocrite, yes, but was it the strict rule on celibacy and sexual abstinence for the priesthood that was Cardinal Keith O'Brien's undoing? We all know the stories of clerical non-celibacy, from the ruthless progeny of the monstrous Borgia Pope Alexander VI to the peccadilloes of priests in Boccaccio's Decameron. Less lurid wedded priests have been Saint Hilary of Tours, Pope Felix III and Pope Hormisdas. One episode has more than a touch of charm about it, however, and emphasises the difficulties encountered by ordinary men and women who find themselves, like the shamed Cardinal, under the uncompromising rule of holy orders.

During the long Italian summer of 1457 in the small Tuscan town of Prato the people congregated at the Cathedral to witness the ceremony of the display of the Virgin Mary's Belt, Prato's most precious relic. The 51-year-old chaplain of the convent of Santa Margharita did not go that day. Instead, he took advantage of the fact that the novices of the convent had been allowed out for a few hours to meet secretly with one of them, a young woman called Lucrezia Buti. Lucrezia, whose distaste for the celibate life seems to have matched his, willingly agreed to follow him to his house for some very uncanonical kissing. The scandal that ensued was still being written about a hundred years later, for the chaplain in question was the great Renaissance painter Filippo Lippi. Lippi's devotion to Christ and, to a lesser degree, the Church shivers deliciously across the surfaces of his paintings. It's a very human vision of the divine, full of love and frailty. Lucrezia's devotion to him is softly echoed in the oft-told story that she is the model for his most charming Madonnas. Despite the menaces of the nuns of Santa Margherita and her outraged family, the couple stayed together, parenting two children, but their clerical vows were dissolved and they only survived because of powerful Medici patronage.

The Church could offer Lippi a way of fulfilling his vocation as a religious painter, but it wouldn't accommodate his desire for sexual fulfilment and let him be a priest. It still won't, whether that fulfilment encompasses people of the opposite or the same sex. We're told the Catholic Church attracts a disproportionate number of gay men, which may be true, but surely that's because it insists its clergy deny the most basic of human needs, the physical manifestation of love, while offering no real justification other than a vague notion of spiritual cleansing which insists that the sexual act is inherently sinful. Young gay men, who feel they shouldn't be, go to the Church to hide their sexuality under a cloak of celibacy because they can't celebrate it. And so the Keith O'Briens of the world are made.

The downfall of men like Cardinal O'Brien was anticipated. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who died last August, was the leading liberal voice of the Catholic Church and a serious candidate to replace John Paul II in 2005. Reading some of the comments both attributed to him in interviews and written by him, it's hard not to escape the conclusion that the Church would have been a very different institution, I would say a fairer, more representative and happier institution, had he become Pope; but one particular view would have been pertinent to the situation the Catholic Church now finds itself in vis-a-vis O'Brien. Cardinal Martini's statements that the Church's prohibition on sexual activity for priests was partly responsible for the sex scandals that have dogged the Vatican in recent years chimes. If the Church were truly to reflect society and be of society, Martini argued, priests, bishops, cardinals, even the Pope himself, should be able to marry and live as the rest of us, and not in some pointless soul-searching ivory tower dystopia.

We don't know whether consent, or a lack of it lie at the heart of Cardinal O'Brien's case. In the story of Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti there seems little doubt that their relationship was consensual, a crucial difference. Furthermore, if O'Brien had been acting 'inappropriately' with nuns under his care would the scandal have been as significant? And therein lies, perhaps, a double standard of which we're all guilty. Whether the recipients of his 'inappropriateness' were male or female should be irrelevant, it's the issue of consent that matters, an issue that wouldn't arise were equal clerical marriage permitted.

Calls for the reform of the Church from within have been ignored, if not actively silenced over the last 30 years or so. Only those who support a sort of mushrooming hierarchy of powerful prelates and dreadnaught Vatican dogma flourished under the dead-leaf papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Now there's another opportunity to look again at reform, except that its greatest proponent, Cardinal Martini, is dead and would have been too old and too ill to stand for election in any case. 450 years ago, when another proto-liberal, Cardinal Reginald Pole, came within a hair's breadth of being elected Pope he was accused of heresy and had to withdraw his candidature. Cardinal Pole, was at the centre of a strong reformist circle in 16th-century Italy called the Spirituali who sought to address Church abuses through reforms which included the recognition of married clergy. His failure heralded a period of repressive and aggressive retrenchment for the Catholic Church, a century or more of bloody religious wars and doctrinal ossification which still denies some pretty basic human rights. Martini also could not turn the Vatican around and, it would seem, has no successor so perhaps the Catholic Church must continue on its unimaginative path. It's not an institution in which a brilliant and very human person like Lippi would thrive: he'd have abandoned it long ago, and with less determination, Lucrezia might never have been able to inspire him to make the beautiful paintings he did.