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Is Ireland divorcing from the Catholic Church?
Mary Kenny ("The Telegraph," July 26, 2011)

Ireland - Our Irish parents and grandparents would find astonishing the acidly anti-clerical views expressed in the Republic of Ireland today. The land that once called itself a foremost Catholic nation and most loyal ally of the Holy Father is awash with sentiments that seem to veer between Ulster Paisleyism and the Spanish republicanism of the 1930s.

One newspaper published a photograph of the Pope in full regalia, with “Persona Non Grata” superimposed on his image.

The airwaves are full of bitter remarks supporting Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s attack on the “disgraceful” Vatican, and recommending every anti-church measure from the dissolution of the monasteries to the expulsion of the Papal Nuncio and the severing of all links with the Holy See. (The recall of the Papal Nuncio this week marks the lowest point of relations between Ireland and Rome.)

One correspondent wrote that it was his ardent hope that the Catholic Church would follow the example of the News of the World, and hold a “last Mass” before shutting down.

The Taoiseach, meanwhile, has been met with standing ovations for his salvo against the Vatican for failing to respond with sufficient concern to the clerical sex abuse scandals as described in the Cloyne report.

His justice minister, Alan Shatter, is introducing a highly controversial Bill which will compel Irish priests to disclose the secrets of the confessional where paedophilia is mentioned: failure to do so could result in a five-year prison sentence.

This is decidedly not the Catholic Ireland in which I grew up, where politicians were falling over themselves to kiss bishops’ rings, and where one of Enda Kenny’s party predecessors as Taoiseach declared that he was a Catholic first and an Irishman second. However, the breach with the Church has been a long time coming, and for the majority of Irish citizens it is welcome.

There was too much deference to the authority of the Church within the state, even if it was, for historical reasons, sometimes understandable.

There was a long memory of the “Saggart Aroon” – the “Darling Priest” who had stood by the people in dark Penal Days and who became, especially after the break with the Crown, a kind of native nobility. In my family, my mother was inordinately proud of an uncle who was a canon in Co Galway, with a stable of hunters and a splendid wine cellar.

Didn’t it show he was just as good as the gentry!

But all power becomes, eventually, overweening, and the clergy’s power grew too great. This new fierce mood of Irish anti-clericalism is all part of the reaction.

Although some details of Kenny’s speech have been challenged – the state itself failed to implement guidelines about child protection, and there will be a conflict over the seal of the confessional – his oration is a remarkable example of a political leader expressing the collective mood: that the laws of the Irish Republic stand above canon law. And that the Irish prime minister does not take dictation from the Holy See.

The Vatican is not best pleased with this development, and sent a cool response about its “surprise and disappointment”. But the Vatican is a bit like the British Empire: it has diplomatic relations with 179 states. It takes time to get around to all of them, however individually compelling.

There are now calls to remove the Catholic Church from every element of Irish public life, and this is supported by a growing secularist movement. Contrary to supposition, though, state and Church in Ireland are already separate: the constitution, although it mentions God, makes no mention of the Catholic Church, specifically affirms that there may be no religious discrimination, and rules that no religion may be endowed by the state.

However, there is a difference between state and culture: the state construes laws, but the culture draws on history, memory, family, folklore. Despite constitutional separation of Church and state, there remain religious traditions, such as the broadcast of the Angelus on national radio, the prayers that open Dail sittings, and the existence – even dominance – of faith-based schools, which secularists seek to abolish.

Such sweeping changes could occur in what was once Catholic Ireland: the state could become as secularist as France, with all allusion to the Almighty officially excised. Yet even in France, the holy days continue, with Pentecost and Ascension and All Saints, and Lourdes attracting millions.

The Church in Ireland will never be what it was, but the faith, at grassroots level, will not disappear. The people will climb the holy mountain of St Patrick, and come in their thousands to the shrine of Our Lady at Knock, and beggar themselves to provide children with first communion regalia; and when there is a tragedy in a small town, the church and parish priest will still be at the centre of the community, offering age-old comforts, not of the Vatican, but of the faith.


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