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.