Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rome feels Kenny's wrath

IT WAS yet another annus horribilis for the Catholic Church in Ireland, a condition now so regular it could be described as a new norm where that institution on this island is concerned. 

But 2011 also witnessed an unprecedented low in relations between Ireland and the Vatican state.

November 3rd was a watershed moment. 

Some would contend it was the lowest point ever reached in Catholic Ireland’s long relationship with Rome because, that evening, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore announced “with the greatest regret and reluctance” that the Government had decided to close Ireland’s embassy to the Holy See.

“While the Embassy to the Holy See is one of Ireland’s oldest missions, it yields no economic return,” Gilmore said, adding, “The Government believes that Ireland’s interests with the Holy See can be sufficiently represented by a non-resident Ambassador.” 

It was later announced that the secretary general at the Department of Foreign Affairs, David Cooney, would be appointed to this position.

The decision to close the embassy to the Holy See took many by surprise. However, the signals were there for some time. The strongest was the Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s extraordinary Dáil speech of July 20th, a week after the Cloyne report was published. 

Before that came the Tánaiste’s own reaction to the Cloyne report when he summoned then papal nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza to Iveagh House.

The Cloyne report had, as the Taoiseach put it, “brought the Government, Irish Catholics and the Vatican to an unprecedented juncture”.

Kenny said Cloyne was “of a different order because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic . . . And in doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism – the narcissism – that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. 

The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’.

“Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s ‘ear of the heart’, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position being the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion upon which the Roman Church was founded.”

Kenny added, “Thankfully . . . this is not Rome. Nor is it industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish Catholic world. This is the Republic of Ireland 2011.”

No taoiseach, no senior Irish politician had ever spoken about the Catholic Church in such terms. Nor was it expected from a man who described himself as “a practising Catholic”, as did the Taoiseach in that Dail speech.

He recalled how some days previously the Tánaiste had spoken to Archbishop Leanza and left him “clear on two things: the gravity of the actions and attitude of the Holy See. And Ireland’s complete rejection and abhorrence of same”.

Media colleagues who attempted to interview the papal nuncio as he left Iveagh House after that meeting with the Tánaiste commented that Archbishop Leanza appeared visibly shaken. 

He was recalled to Rome days after the Taoiseach’s speech and has since been posted to the Czech Republic which, according to studies, is the most atheistic country in Europe.

As the Irish ambassador to the Holy See, Noel Fahey, had retired in the summer, it meant then that both the Irish and Vatican states were without representation at a senior level for the first time since formal diplomatic relations was established between both. 

That was in 1929 when the Vatican state came into being on the signing of the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini.

Into this vacuum on September 3rd came Rome’s 25-page, 11,000-word response to the Cloyne report, to the Taoiseach’s speech and to the Tánaiste’s injunctions to Archbishop Leanza. The Vatican described as “unfounded” Kenny’s claim in the Dáil on July 20th that it attempted to frustrate an inquiry into abuse “as little as three years ago”. 

It also argued the Cloyne report provided “no evidence” to support its claim that a 1997 Vatican letter circulated to Catholic bishops undermined the implementation of the Irish church’s child protection guidelines.

But the Government was not for turning. 

The Tánaiste described the response as “highly technical, highly legalistic, very much dancing on the head of a pin”.

The Taoiseach said his criticisms of the Vatican and its lack of co-operation with the Murphy Commission “still stand”.

After a Cabinet meeting, the Government said in a statement that the Taoiseach’s speech and comments from other political leaders “accurately reflect the public anger of the overwhelming majority of Irish people at the failure of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Holy See to deal adequately with clerical child sexual abuse and those who committed such appalling acts”.

But it welcomed “the commitment in the concluding remarks of the Holy See’s response to a constructive dialogue and co-operation with the Government”.

In late November, a new papal nuncio was appointed to Ireland. Msgr Charles Brown (52) is an Irish-American New Yorker who has worked at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1994.

He arrives early in the New Year when he will assume the traditional role of papal nuncio to Ireland as dean of the diplomatic corps in Dublin. His arrival is expected to herald the beginning of a new normality in relations between the the State and Rome.

Though dropped from the Constitution in a 1972 referendum, the “special position” of the Catholic Church in Ireland is now truly no more.