Hostility Comes to the Surface

Why the Irish government attacks the Catholic Church

Any Catholic American who lived through the Long Lent of 2002 can sympathize with the beleaguered Catholics of Ireland today. Especially for someone like myself, a native Bostonian, the scenes that are playing out now in Dublin look depressingly familiar.

In Ireland, as in Boston, a society that was until recently dominated by Catholic influence is now in full angry rebellion against the Church. Politicians who once curried favor with the hierarchy now compete to take the toughest public stand against the bishops and the Vatican. The public is angry—so angry, in fact, that a remarkable transformation has occurred: Queen Elizabeth is more welcome in today’s Ireland than Pope Benedict.

Catholicism dominated in Ireland much more fully, and far longer, than in Boston. So when the pendulum swung, the results were far more extreme. Politicians in Boston slapped aside Catholic objections to same-sex marriage, but they have never proposed legislation that would threaten a priest with prison if he refused to violate the confessional seal.

“This is not Rome,” said the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, in an angry tirade against the Church. “This is the Republic of Ireland in 2011: a republic of laws.” It seems clear that the Taoiseach saw himself as bravely defying the power of the Vatican—although it is far from clear that the Vatican has had any practical control over Irish political affairs in recent years. Kenny’s purpose was not to solve problems for the government but to create problems for the Church. And, God knows, the Church has enough problems of her own.

Kenny’s speech was most remarkable, however, in that it focused criticism not on the Irish bishops, but on the Vatican. The Irish leader condemned the Vatican for disapproving of the Irish bishops’ policies, without bothering to examine the reasons for that disapproval.

In 1997 the Vatican—or to be more accurate, the Congregation for Bishops—said that the proposed Irish policies did not include adequate canonical safeguards for the rights of accused clerics. As a result, the Congregation for Clergy warned, a priest guilty of sexual abuse might appeal a disciplinary sentence and escape punishment. That is a legitimate concern; a fair-minded critic would have acknowledged as much. 

Nevertheless, a fair critic should also acknowledge that the Vatican response was disappointing—or, as the Cloyne report put it, “entirely unhelpful”—to advocates of real reform within the Irish Church. While the Congregation for Clergy had real enough concerns about the Irish bishops’ proposal, the substance and tenor of the response from Rome (again quoting the Cloyne report) “effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed and gave comfort and support to those who…dissented from the stated official Irish Church policy.” 

Unfortunately, as we now know, there was a serious split within the Vatican, through the late 1990s, on the proper handling of sex-abuse cases. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was pushing for a strong disciplinary response. The Congregation for Clergy, under Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, took a much more casual approach. 

The Vatican’s attitude toward sex-abuse cases has undergone two major changes in the past decade. In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger gained sole jurisdiction for such cases for his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and began taking every instance of clerical abuse seriously. Then, in 2005 Cardinal Ratzinger—who was now even more acutely conscious of the magnitude of the problem—became Pope Benedict XVI. Since his election there have been no more examples of Vatican sympathy for priestly abusers and their defenders in the hierarchy.

Enda Kenny, in his outburst against the Vatican, neglected to mention the clear change in policies emanating from Rome. The errors of the past are gross and undeniable. But are they continuing? The Cloyne report exposed a lackadaisical attitude toward abuse reports in that diocese, as late as 2008. That is appalling. But let’s not forget what happened in the Diocese of Cloyne. Bishop John Magee—a very influential man in Rome, who had served as private secretary to three popes—was forced to resign in disgrace, even before the Murphy commission began its investigation. In other words, the Vatican took action before the Irish government did. The Vatican has subsequently accepted the early resignations of three other Irish bishops. More changes may be coming, as the result of an apostolic visitation.  

Why, then, are Irish government leaders lashing out at the Vatican? To gain political advantage? Perhaps. But there is more. Kenny’s fulminations against Roman influence betray a mounting hostility toward the Church which has been growing in Ireland for years, and has only burst into prominence now because of the sex-abuse scandal.

Political analysts say that the public influence of the Church in Ireland fell sharply in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal. But that is misleading—just as it was misleading to say that Catholic influence in Boston has plummeted in 2002. In both cases, the public influence of the Church was manifestly in decline for years before the scandal emerged. A healthy Catholic community would not accept misguided attacks on the Vatican. And a healthy Catholic hierarchy would not include bishops who believe that welfare of predatory priests takes precedence over that of innocent children.

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