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Catholic World News News Feature

Snubbing the Pope January 03, 2002

In April, a month after President Mary Robinson had a private audience with Pope John Paul II, a heated debate broke out in Ireland over an allegation by a young Rome-based Irish priest that the president had deliberately slighted the Holy Father.

President Robinson, a former socialist lawyer, met the Pope during an official visit to Italy. Breaking with the tradition that calls for guests to wear black or dark clothing, Robinson chose a green suit, adorned with a sprig of mimosa to mark International Women's Day. She also chose not to wear any head covering.

At first the president's choice of clothing prompted no particular notice. But then Father David O'Hanlon--who was ordained in 1995 and is completing a licentiate in patristic theology in Rome--wrote to the Irish Times criticizing the style of the Irish president's visit and calling her "cheap." His letter provoked an angry response. Ten priests and Bishop John Kirby, head of Ireland's Third World aid agency, Trocaire, delivered their own response to the Irish Times, denouncing Father O'Hanlon's views. The lively exchange continued well into the month of May.

Father O'Hanlon showed no signs of backing off his position; he responded to his critics with a half-page reply in the same newspaper. "Sadly, I am not acquainted with any of the [individuals who signed the letter criticizing him]," he said. "Old priests tell me they were once the up-and-coming generation. Does it threaten them that somebody like myself, a neophyte of 28, now rejects their complacent, characterless, and crumbling compromise between Church and modern Ireland?

The young priest continued:

We call a person cheap not because they look cheap but because their actions are cheap. I call the President of Ireland cheap because her behavior in Rome towards her host, the Bishop of Rome, was a cheap travesty of respect and a cheap personal propaganda stunt from start to finish.


Father O'Hanlon listed several reasons, apart from the president's mode of dress, to justify his conclusion that her behavior had been "cheap." As the head of an overwhelmingly Catholic country, she might waited until near the end of her seven-year presidential term. Even then, he continued, she had "reluctantly popped in" at the Vatican in what amounted to an "afterthought," after coming to Rome in an apparent effort to secure a post in the leadership of the United Nations.

The Irish president did not bother with even the most routine displays of piety during her sojourn in Rome, the unhappy priest observed. She did not visit the tomb of St. Peter. Nor was she accompanied by a priest--either her own chaplain or anyone from the Irish College in Rome--when she visited the Vatican.

In general, Robinson and her aides conveyed an attitude of contempt for the Pope and the Catholic Church, Father O'Hanlon said. When reporters criticized the Holy Father for failing to decorate the Irish president, she made no effort to correct them--although, since she was not making an official state visit, the standard diplomatic protocol did not call for any such gesture. According to O'Hanlon, reporters if Rome concluded that the members of Robinson's traveling party had distinguished themselves by their "swaggering disrespect, forced mockery, and an almost adolescent sneer."

But above all, Father O'Hanlon argued that the Irish leader had shown her disrespect for the Pope when she willfully flouted established protocol concerning dress. As he put it:

Such figures as Mrs Clinton, Diana Princess of Wales, Queen Elizabeth, Mrs Netanyahu, Mrs Reagan (all non-Catholics) each wore black or dark grey. Mrs Robinson went barefoot for her Muslim fellow citizens [when performing the opening ceremony for a mosque in Dublin]; was it too much for Catholic fellow-citizens to hope that she might wear even navy?

The priest was particularly critical of Robinson's decision to emphasize her feminist sympathies by wearing a sprig of mimosa. He explained:

Mimosa is like holly, not shamrock. It is for decorating places and things, not people. In Italy, around March 8th, mimosa is presented to women as a gift, to be displayed in a vase, never worn. Mistakenly wearing mimosa for International Women's Day is to Italians what wearing holly at Christmas would be to us--slightly bizarre.


According to Father O'Hanlon, the rumor among the Irish clerics and students living in Rome was that President Robinson had hoped that by wearing a green outfit, she might provoke Vatican officials to turn her away. (There was a precedent for such an action, although it was an old one; in 1962, Princess Paola of Belgium had been denied an audience because her apparel was judged unsuitable.) Or perhaps the Pope would inject some controversy into the meeting by criticizing social and trends in modern Ireland in Robinson's presence; he might have condemned the country's recent introduction of legal divorce, dissemination of information about abortion, contraception, and limited euthanasia (the last development having been introduced by a recent Supreme Court decision to allow a woman to be deprived of food and water until death after she was diagnosed as being in a "persistent vegetative state"). But if the president had any such plans to gain notoriety for her visit, the Pope thwarted them, by avoiding such controversial topics during the short visit.

In his letter to the Irish Times, Father O'Hanlon concluded that President Robinson had hoped to serve her own political purposes by staging a public confrontation between the Vatican and the modern secular state. But her efforts had backfired, he said, because the Pope did not rise to the bait either by frowning on Robinson's dress or by condemning Irish social trends. He explained:

This--in either case--might then be represented to the Irish people as the ultimate bang of a crosier for all that post-Catholic Ireland has become, and the last gasp of a desperate, discredited, rigid, reactionary, and patriarchal regime.

Mary wanted John Paul to give her a black eye; his Holiness serenely turned her a blind (albeit 'twinkling') one. She wanted to cut a provocative, modern, dashing figure. He left her looking like a crank.

What President Robinson represented in reality at the Vatican was nothing other than her own personal animosity towards Catholicism as interpreted by Pope John Paul I-- a clear case of very cross dressing!


Bishop Willie Walsh, in a letter to the Irish Times, said he had spoken to many priests about Father O'Hanlon's criticism of the president. "Dismay, embarrassment, outrage are the reactions. We are simply appalled that a fellow priest would refer to our president--or indeed to any person--as being 'cheap,'" he wrote.

Not everyone agreed. Father Michael Savage, OP, in a letter to the same paper, said: "Not for a long time have I enjoyed such a well-written and fairly-argued article as that of Father O'Hanlon. Like his namesake in the Old Testament, Father David has dared to tackle the Goliath of some of the presuppositions of (post) 'modern Ireland,' along with its theological defenders. Let's have some tolerance and pluralism from the 'other side' for a change."

In its own coverage of the story, the Irish Times--in a half-page article featuring a large head-and-shoulders photograph of the 28-year-old Father O'Hanlon, interviewed Father Austin Flannery, the compiler of the documents of Vatican II, whom Father O'Hanlon had described as a "has-been".

Father Flannery said O'Hanlon's attack on President Robinson had been "ill-informed and very offensive.". Bishop John Kirby expressed "shock" at O'Hanlon's views. Columnist Medb Ruane said the young priest's sudden rise to celebrity on Irish radio and in the newspapers was "a textbook case of how priests who seem funny can in fact be very dangerous."

Ruane said that, when Father O'Hanlon had mentioned on radio that women were ontologically different from men, President Robinson's "offense became clearer. The real question is not so much whether she did or did not deliberately flout convention, but rather that she is. She is." Ruane said Father O'Hanlon's remarks about Robinson "hint at an attitude to women that may inform his feelings about the president."

After almost a month of controversy, Father O'Hanlon decided not to respond further to his attackers, but said he would let his arguments speak for themselves.

In a final sally, a letter in the Irish Independent --referring to Father O'Hanlon as a "verbose Vatican viper"--misquoted King Henry II of England: "Will no-one rid us of his turbulent priest?"

[AUTHOR ID] Kieron Wood writes regularly from Dublin for Catholic World Report.

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