ANALYSIS: Rome wants to turn back the clock in Ireland but the church may have the wrong take on the abortion issue.
Holy See has not given up on Ireland.
Despite two tempestuous decades
of clerical sex abuse scandals, marked by the Irish Catholic Church’s
unprecedented loss of credibility and moral authority, there are those
in the Vatican who would still like to believe that Ireland can resume
its once “proud” role of last bastion of traditional, conservative
Catholicism in an increasingly atheist western Europe.
Benedict XVI last Monday spoke of his dismay that “in various countries,
even those of Christian tradition, efforts are being made to introduce
or expand legislation which decriminalises abortion”, it was hard not to
see this as a specific reference to Ireland.
While it is true
that the pope never misses an opportunity to reaffirm the church’s total
repudiation of abortion, this comment seemed to go further.
all, how many countries “of Christian tradition” are currently involved
in “introducing or expanding” abortion legislation?
is true, spent most of 2012 engaged in a bitter abortion debate, but
that came to an end in October when it became the second country in
Latin America, after Cuba, to legalise abortion.
Apart from that,
the only legal initiatives on the horizon concern a series of
controversial Bills introduced by Republicans in Virginia, basically
aiming to restrict women’s access to abortion and birth control rather
than “expand” them.
The pope’s remarks last Monday were made in the context of his keynote speech to the Vatican diplomatic corps.
another keynote speech, his World Day of Peace speech released last
month, the pope had also argued that those who support abortion
“insufficiently value human life”.
Not for nothing, this theme was
taken up by papal nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown at a World Peace Day
Mass in Dublin on New Year’s Day, a Mass attended by President Michael D
Higgins and many senior politicians.
The logic of this is that, when it comes to Ireland or just about any other country, the nuncio is the pope’s point man.
it comes to Irish issues, usually of a clerical sexual abuse nature,
the pope has relied on the advice of a small group of senior curia
figures – American Peter Wells, a sort of home affairs minister;
Moroccan-born Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign
minister; Italian Msgr Ettore Balestrero, the number two at the foreign
desk, and Scottish Msgr Leo Cushley, head of the English desk in the
secretariat of state and a man who played a key role in the preparation
of the pope’s March 2010 letter to the Irish faithful.
comes to controversial “local” issues, however, (even if abortion is
clearly much more than a “local” issue), the Holy See pays very close
attention to the nuncio and the most senior church figures in the land,
in this case Cardinal Seán Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.
insiders argue, however, that the nuncio’s input may weigh heaviest
given that some curia figures tend to see Cardinal Brady and Archbishop
Martin as the men who keep on turning up in Rome with another damning
clerical sex abuse report under their arms.
Archbishop Brown also worked for 11 years alongside the pope at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
remains to be seen how active a role the nuncio intends to play in the
Privately, he has told friends that after just one year
in Dublin, both he and the Irish church could have done without such a
controversial debate, adding, however, that the church did not go
“looking for this one”.
His New Year’s Day intervention served as a
reminder that while the nuncio is technically a diplomat, he remains
first and foremost a card-carrying conveyor of the line decreed by the
Those Vatican observers familiar with the subtleties and
complex legal considerations of the Irish abortion issue, however, argue
that this may be one situation where the church runs the risk of
charging at windmills.
In other words, the Holy See has bought the
line that the Government’s proposed legislation will end up as a “thin
end of the wedge measure” that will enshrine abortion on demand, rather
than merely codify already restrictive abortion legislation, in the
process protecting doctors and health workers.
The activisim of
the anti-abortion movement, of clerics such as Bishop Leo O’Reilly of
Kilmore and of senior legal experts such as Prof William Binchy, may
have helped fog up the Holy See’s looking glass.
Anyone who left
Ireland back in the early 1980s could have been forgiven for a sense of
déjà vu if they returned after a 30-year break this Christmas.
was Prof Binchy, and others, still beating an anti-abortion drum, just
as they did in the “abortion amendment” campaign in the early 80s.
suspects there are people in Rome who would like to hit the delete
button on the last 20 years of sea change in Ireland and pretend that
this is still a great little Catholic country.
As we said, the Holy See
has not given up on Ireland.