Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Faith of Irish shaken

Church attendance here may not reflect the extent of the problem, but relations between Ireland and the Vatican are less cordial now than they have ever been. 

That may not be saying a lot. 

Over the years, Irish political leaders have been exceedingly deferential to even home-grown bishops and cardinals.

But two recent incidents demonstrate that the situation these days is clearly different.

Last July, the latest inquiry into clerical child sex abuse in Ireland — the so-called Cloyne Report — was published and it contained a breathtaking catalogue of neglect, deceit and collusion on the part of Irish church officials as well as those stationed in the Vatican.

Speaking in the Irish parliament in response to the report, Prime Minister Enda Kenny unleashed an unprecedented attack on the Vatican’s role in covering up in-house cases of child sex abuse.

The Irish leader pulled no punches.

The report, he said, exposed “an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago.”

According to Kenny, the inquiry also uncovered “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism” still dominating Vatican culture.

And in perhaps the most damning line of his heated address, the prime minister said: “The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation.”

This parliamentary assault set the stage for another decisive statement.

Last November, the Irish government closed its embassy to the Holy See. The move sent out an unambiguous message, both at home and abroad, that it is no longer business as usual between the Irish state and the institutional leaders of the country’s majority faith.

Given the current economic climate, the closure was touted as a cost-cutting measure — even though the sums involved seem paltry in light of the billions coming down the tracks in EU loan repayments. 

(In 2008, Ireland’s Vatican embassy cost 800,000 euros to run.)

Also, according to Irish Times Rome correspondent Paddy Agnew, Irish diplomats will now lose access to the Vatican’s “unparalleled and extensive network of contacts, intelligence and information.”

On the domestic front, meanwhile, opposition to the closure is growing among rank-and-file members of Fine Gael, the government’s majority party, who say they are hearing from their constituents that the Vatican embassy should remain open, given Ireland’s long-standing relationship with the Catholic church.

Even so, these are testing times for church leaders here.

How they react in the coming months and years to a government that now defies them openly will determine the nature of the church’s future involvement in Irish life.