DUBLIN — As Archbishop Charles Brown takes up his new post of papal nuncio to Ireland, he will face what some see as unprecedented difficulties for the Church in Ireland.
After the publication of a series of reports outlining gruesome cases of sexual abuse by priests in Ireland over recent decades, coupled with a falloff in Church attendance, and less quantifiably, a perceptible decline in religious belief and practice, it’s little wonder that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin predicted that his archdiocese faced its toughest challenge “since Catholic Emancipation,” the 1829 changes to British law that removed many of the discriminatory provisions against Catholics in the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was then a part.
Archbishop Martin was commenting on a drop in Mass attendance in Dublin to 14% and declining priest numbers, but the remarks were seen by many as appropriate to the wider Church in Ireland, which now operates within what Irish writer John Waters described to the Register as “the most anti-Catholic country in Europe.”
That animus erupted into open verbal warfare during 2011, a year marked by confrontation between the Church and the Irish government — a recently elected coalition encompassing the “center-right” Fine Gael (literally “Tribe of Irish”), the largest party, and the Labour Party, which Waters described as “secular-atheist” in its worldview. Ireland, according to Waters, is going through a belated and accelerated version of the “rush of atheism and pseudo-rationalism” that other European societies have long since undergone, but one that makes the Irish “culture war” potentially more divisive.
On July 20, 2011, Ireland’s prime minister — called locally An Taoiseach (literally “chieftain,” the title being a tokenistic official reference to Ireland’s Gaelic antiquity) — Enda Kenny, made international headlines when, in an address to the Irish parliament, he pointed to what he described as the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism — the narcissism — that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”
More specifically, he alleged that the Cloyne Report, which was published one week previously and pointed to cover-ups of and a failure to address abuse in the southern Irish diocese, “exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign democratic republic.”
A spokesman for Kenny said that his speech “accurately reflected 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.” The spokesman said, however, that the government has “welcomed the Holy See’s commitment to constructive dialogue and cooperation with the government, and the Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) has said that should the government be informed by the Holy See that Pope Benedict wishes to visit Ireland at a time of mutual convenience, for instance on the occasion of next year’s Eucharistic Congress, he has no doubt that the government will respond positively and that an invitation will be forthcoming.”
Archbishop Martin was not available for an interview.
In a Sept. 3 written response, the Vatican argued that Kenny’s latter claim was “unfounded,” but Kenny stood by his words, which included an unrelated 1990 quote by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, juxtaposed to suggest that Cardinal Ratzinger was referring as Pope to Church policy on addressing abuse issues.
Eamon Gilmore, the Irish foreign minister, who doubles as Kenny’s deputy PM, dismissed the Vatican response as “highly technical, highly legalistic; very much dancing on the head of a pin.”
Later, on Nov. 3, Gilmore, also head of the Labour Party, announced that the country would close its embassy to the Holy See, “with the greatest regret and reluctance,” according to Gilmore. He added that “while the Embassy to the Holy See is one of Ireland’s oldest missions, it yields no economic return.”
Kenny’s speech sought to tap public anger at the abuse scandals and at what minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald later described as “the desperately poor response they received from the Church authorities in Cloyne.” But, to some, the Kenny attack seemed like using the Cloyne Report to take a cheap shot at the Vatican.
Father Paddy McCafferty, a 47-year-old priest from Northern Ireland, but now in Rathmines in the same Dublin Diocese where Archbishop Martin believes there to be historic challenges, described the Kenny attack as “opportunistic grandstanding.”
While Father McCafferty was a seminarian, he was sexually assaulted by James Donaghy, a former priest who was jailed last month in Belfast for the attacks as well as other charges of abusing teenage altar boys.
Referring to the Kenny speech, Father McCafferty added that “the Taoiseach was using the victims’ suffering for his own purposes.”
Asked why he became a priest after the attacks, Father McCafferty said, “I have wanted to be a priest since I was a boy and did not want to let the abuser stop that.” He said that he could not have survived without the support of what he describes as “true, good people in the Church,” but added that he is glad that the Church in Ireland has shed much of its sometimes prominence in Irish secular and public life.
That exalted role may have contributed to what Father Vincent Twomey, author of The End of Irish Catholicism? and Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age , described as “a certain complacency, historically, within Irish Catholicism.” He hopes that with the International Eucharistic Congress taking place in Ireland in June 2012 — an event that may yet see Pope Benedict XVI in Dublin — “there may be a springtime in the Church here,” though he conceded that “we are facing a difficult situation.”
A likely challenge will come from a new law on the withholding of information on crimes against children, which could attempt to force priests to disclose information they hear during sacramental confession. There have been conflicting statements from Irish government ministers on whether or not this will be part of the proposed law, details of which will be made public early this year.
Some of the Irish bishops — a number of whom have been attacked for their role in dealing with sex abuse by priests in their dioceses — are due to retire in the coming months, and Archbishop Brown, the new nuncio, will oversee new appointments.
But whether or not Irish Church leaders are in a position to react to the law, and more generally “to address the view that Christianity is seen as obsolete,” as Waters put it, remains to be seen. “What is needed,” he said, “are bishops who understand Christianity and are prepared to talk about it without being scared.”
Register correspondent Simon Roughneen filed this report from Ireland.