THE spectacle of Cardinal Desmond Connell rushing to the High Court to muzzle Archbishop Diarmuid Martin's open policy of co-operation with the State inquiry into the Dublin Archdiocese is the most serious breach of the rock-solid outward unity normally displayed by members of the Irish Hierarchy.
While this eruption of deep policy differences between the cardinal and the archbishop has come as a shock to the nation, it was a regular occurrence in the 19th century for prelates to give each other a belt of their croziers in public, and for priests to challenge their bishops in the civil courts.
A prime instance owas the decades-long feud between the two giants of their day, Cardinal Paul Cullen, of Dublin, and Archbishop John MacHale, of Tuam. Their regular confrontations arose from a mixture of personality dislike as well as ideological differences relating to nationalism, the Fenian Movement and the question of papal infallibility, with His Lordship of Tuam vigorously opposed to it and His Eminence its staunch champion.
However, Rome's strong centralisation policy muzzled the warring Irish clerics through appointing men loyal and submissive to the Sovereign Pontiff, and in due time the meetings of the Bishops at Maynooth became so secretive that by the 1950s the Papal Nuncio in Dublin was complaining that even he was finding it hard to get information about their deliberations behind the closed portals of the national seminary. The one recent exception came only 18 years ago when Cardinal Cahal Daly rebuked the Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, over his call for a debate on the Church's obligatory rule of priestly celibacy. Indeed, Bishop Comiskey was summoned to Rome, where, in his own words, he was "humiliated".
In an address in August 1995 to the Humbert Summer School, Bishop Comiskey complained that he had not been fairly treated in Rome. "When they can do that to me, I can appreciate for the first time how the laity feel," he said.
Admitting he had become disillusioned with Church structures, Bishop Comiskey hardly ingratiated himself with the Vatican when he added: "The Holy See is out of touch with Ireland and regards us as a bunch of innocenent peasants rather than as a sophisticated, very articulate people."
Bishop Comiskey's observation is worth recalling in regard to the publicity bombshell which has now exploded from the legal action of the octogenarian Prince of the Church.
Church spin-doctors were on the offensive yesterday playing-down the row as a personality clash between Cardinal Connell and Archbishop Martin. Paraded out to engage in a damage-limitation exercise was the auxiliary bishop of Dublin, Eamonn Walsh, who claimed that the media had spun the line that the cardinal and the archbishop were involved in mortal combat.
Bishop Wall insisted the dispute was about legal issues not personalities.
Bishop Walsh was an ideal choice to calm the turbulent ecclesiastical storm. A lawyer by training, he was the prelate who piloted the diocese of Ferns through its painful Commission of Inquiry into the horrendous level of clerical child sexual abuse after the resignation in April 2002 of Bishop Comiskey.
But Bishop Walsh warned that even when churchmen go to lawyers, it is a minefield. Rome is silently watching the outcome of this landmark action, which will profoundly affect the reputations of the cardinal and the archbishop -- along with the Irish Church's standing with both the State and a critical-minded public.