Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Ireland's dramatic fallout with the Catholic Church

The Vatican took the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassador to Ireland on Monday following a fiery speech from the country's prime minister denouncing the church for covering up cases of child sex abuse. The row is an indication of just how much Ireland, once a loyal foot soldier for the pope, has changed over the past two decades.

The fiery speech on the floor of the Irish Parliament by Prime Minister Enda Kenny last week was in reaction to the government's latest report on sex abuse in the Irish church. The report found that the Vatican had deliberately tried to downplay and cover up the rape and torture of children by priests in Ireland, and found that it was doing so as recently as 2009. It also found that the Vatican was trying to interfere with the Irish government's investigation into the matter. This was apparently all too much for Kenny. Denouncing the "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism" of the Vatican, Kenny told the parliament:
"This is not Rome. Nor is it industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world. This is the Republic of Ireland 2011. A republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities; of proper civic order; where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version, of a particular kind of 'morality,' will no longer be tolerated or ignored."

The Vatican was reportedly shocked and enraged by the speech, which they called an "excessive reaction". The recall of the Vatican's ambassador, called a nuncio, is the first such instance for any country in modern history.

It's not hard to understand why the defiant reaction came as such a shock to the Vatican. After all this is a country that has been deferential to the Vatican for centuries, where people regarded the pope as a higher authority than the British monarch during its time as part of the British empire. One could argue that the fact that Ireland is Roman Catholic was its historical raison d'etre as a country, the most powerful catalyst behind its fight for independence from the Protestant British Empire. It is inconceivable to imagine a mainstream Irish politician delivering such a fierce denouncement of the Catholic Church even just a few decades ago.

But Ireland has changed, and perhaps the Vatican has been slow to catch on to that. This was in glaring evidence by the public and parliamentary reaction to Kenny's speech, which was almost entirely supportive. Kenny is from the traditionally pro-church Fine Gael conservative party. Virtually the entire parliament supported him, and political analysts in Ireland are saying Kenny's speech will not lose him support either within his conservative party or with the public at large. He's put his neck out, and the Irish political class has followed him with evident relief. They are collectively denouncing the pope's influence in Ireland almost in the same way that parliamentarians across the Irish Sea are currently denouncing Rupert Murdoch's hold over Britain.

Granted, signs of Catholicism's hold over the island still abound on the island. It is one of just four European countries where abortion is still illegal (the others being Poland, Malta and Cyprus). The Catholic Church still runs 90% of primary schools in the country and half of all secondary schools. Yet many analysts predict that the days of Ireland's abortion ban are numbered, and that the country will enact a major education reform in the next few years removing the church's influence from the education system. Ireland also recently took the bold step of enacting same-sex civil unions, even after the Catholic Church warned the government against doing so.

This is the second rebuke to the Vatican from a once solidly Catholic state in just a few months, following Malta's vote to end its ban on divorce in May after the church had campaigned to maintain it. Surely the Vatican must be looking nervously toward Poland these days to see if even its most reliably Catholic ally could show signs of turning against them.

Of course this is all part of a larger trend of the Catholic Church's influence in Europe declining. But Ireland, Poland, Malta and to a lesser extent Italy have been the Vatican's bulwarks against this trend – countries where the church still wielded significant influence in political life. Now even these last outposts of Catholic power seem to be turning away from the papacy.

1 comment:

Bernie said...

Thanks for covering this so well - I copied the speech when I read about it I was so amazed (especially as a half-Irish, ex-convent schoolgirl). Unbelievable. Good to have the video of it, thanks (wish there had been a full house, with cheers at appropriate points, it was an excellent piece of political rhetoric). Naturally, most attention will be paid to the truly historic attack on the Vatican and all the implications your mention, though there probably should have been more public acknowledgement of the report's conclusions on the failure of all the state agencies in dealing with the issue seriously, which he does touch on to an extent, and I suppose that a bit of political burying is understandable as dealing with clericalism has probably been at the corrupt heart of a lot of it. But a really shattering statement.

Btw, I'm sure you'll be off travelling, but thought you'd like to know that Prague is having its first ever Pride next month (though there have been events in Brno/Tabor before), Jimmy Somerville (a blast from my past) and all -