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Behind the anti-Vatican campaign in Ireland (analysis)

July 27, 2011

Time magazine carries a remarkably tendentious and inaccurate report on the tensions between the Catholic Church and the Irish government, concluding with the triumphant announcement that “the days of the Vatican’s undue influence over the Irish are over.”

The influence of the Church is judged “undue,” presumably, because Time does not welcome it. But notice, too, that Time focuses on the influence of the Vatican, not the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. That pattern is evident from the opening sentence of the report: “Ireland has long been the model of a loyal Catholic state, an ask-no-questions adherent to the Vatican’s word.”

That claim is obviously false; Ireland legalized contraception and divorce despite opposition from the Church, and is now in the process of dismantling a system of Church-run schools. Yet even a century ago, when the Catholic Church undoubtedly did exercise enormous influence over Irish political affairs, it was Ireland’s own hierarchy—not necessarily the Vatican—that wielded the power.

So why is Time anxious to depict a tension between the Irish political class and Rome—rather than between the Irish politicians and the Irish bishops? Irish prime minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny sought to create the same false dichotomy in his angry speech last week: the speech that became the basis for the Time report. Michael Kelly of the Irish Catholic finds is “hardly credible” that Kenny and his speechwriters would have taken that hard anti-Vatican line without some prompting from within the Church: from those who would prefer to have anger directed at Rome rather than at the local hierarchy. Some Irish bishops have been muttering that they would have been able to handle the abuse crisis quite well, thank you, if they hadn’t been thwarted by Rome. There is very little evidence to support that theory, yet now the country’s leading politician has given it credibility (and Time obediently follows his lead). “In solely targeting the Vatican,” Kelly concludes, “the Taoiseach risks giving succour to those within the Church in Ireland who are still trying to absolve themselves of responsibility for this crisis.”

By contrast with the severely skewed Time report, a PBS story seems refreshingly accurate. The PBS account, too, is critical of the Vatican. But in this case the criticism is more measured, and in accord with the facts. In fact PBS neatly captures the basis for the current tensions between Dublin and Rome:

So, the problem is, the Irish people feel that the Vatican has been very legalistic, although the Vatican say that they have just been following it straight down the line in relation to the diplomatic norms that they have to follow.

Meanwhile the tensions escalate. After the Vatican recalled the apostolic nuncio from Ireland, a member of the Irish senate shot back by suggesting that the International Eucharistic Congress, scheduled to take place in Dublin next year, should be postponed in light of the current crisis. Not coincidentally, the Eucharistic Congress furnished the occasion for a scheduled visit to Ireland by Pope Benedict XVI. Thus calling off the event would probably mean scuttling the papal visit.

In making this suggestion, Senator Cáit Keane mentioned that the Association of Catholic Priests, a liberal group, had already suggested postponing the Eucharistic Congress. So it seems that this politician, at least, was taking cues from dissidents within the Irish clergy. How much of the current hostility toward the Vatican could be traced to the same sources?


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  • Posted by: - Jul. 27, 2011 11:46 PM ET USA

    It would seem that the notion that St Patrick rid Ireland of snakes is only a fable after all.