Cardinal Sean Brady was less than fully frank at Knock last weekend. A Catholic journalist cornered him on the possibility that Catholic politicians who back the planned abortion bill might be excommunicated.
That journalist was Anthony Murphy whose Catholic Voice paper declares that its editorial tone is fairly summed up by headlines that include, "Burn it! If it is not in line with Catholic teaching."
Mr Murphy put it to Cardinal Brady that the proposed abortion legislation incurs automatic excommunication for anyone who supports it.
The cardinal replied: "That is down the line at the moment, as far as we are concerned. It [our job] is to convince the electorate first of all and the legislators."
Pressed on the matter, Cardinal Brady pointed out that the exact legislation that would be introduced was not yet known.
"We know what the law [of the Church] is about excommunication, about abortion, that's a fact."
But anyone who assumes that his words mean that members of the Oireachtas who vote for an abortion law could face excommunication is mistaken.
The words of some members of the US and Uruguayan hierarchy have been clearer. They publicly accept that Catholic politicians may vote for abortion legislation, distinguishing between political responsibilities and religious beliefs.
Threats of automatic excommunication and of the deprivation of holy communion have been used in the US against politicians by certain anti-abortionists. But in 2004 Archbishop William Levada clarified the position in respect to "Catholics in Political Life and the Reception of Holy Communion". His statement still stands on the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and includes this passage:
"If the person intends [Levada's emphasis] to pro-
mote the killing of innocent life, s/he would be guilty of sinful co-operation. If such an intention were present, even a voter could be guilty of such co-operation. But this seems unlikely as a general rule. Should every Catholic politician who has voted for an unjust law favouring abortion be judged to have this intention? I hope not. The public nature of such votes raises the question perforce. But this is the point of a pastor's solicitude for this member of his flock."
Why was Cardinal Brady not as explicit as Levada last weekend? Was it another example of the Irish hierarchy hiding behind the concept of "mental reservation"?
Caught out in what some regarded as a lie about managing a child abuser, Cardinal Desmond Connell once explained the Catholic concept of "mental reservation" as follows: "... you are not permitted to tell a lie. On the other hand, you may be put in a position where you have to answer, and there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be – permitting that to happen ... "
When Cardinal Brady was "put in a position" last weekend, what did he think that the Catholic Voice and Irish politicians would take from his answer?
The Uruguayan hierarchy in 2012 was a lot more explicit on excommunication.
According to the Catholic News Agency, the Uruguayan bishops' conference explained last year that Catholic lawmakers who voted to legalise abortion in the country were not excommunicated.
"Excommunication applies to Catholics who have acted directly in carrying out an abortion, which does not include those who vote for a law that allows it," Bishop Heriberto Bodeant, secretary general of the conference reportedly said.
He added that automatic excommunication is only "for those who collaborate in the execution of an abortion in a direct way, and direct means committing that specific act." And some Catholic doctors in conscience would go further in limited circumstances.
Cardinal Brady was presumably referring to the catechism of the Catholic Church when he mentioned "the law". This catechism states that: "Formal co-operation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life."
For Catholics, excommunication may mean the loss of the consoling sacraments such as holy communion and the last rites, public services and prayers of the Church, ecclesiastical burial, jurisdiction, benefices, canonical rights, and social intercourse. It is no mean threat for the faithful.
Catholic bishops who never consistently or sweepingly condemn Catholics who kill in "a just war", frequently refuse to accept that sometimes in pregnancy it is the least bad option to end one life for the sake of another. Some are quick to judge.
Four years ago Time magazine reported the case of a pregnant 9-year-old in Brazil: "Archibishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of the coastal city of Recife announced that the Vatican was excommunicating the family of a local girl who had been raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather, because they had chosen to have the girl undergo an abortion."
The doctors who performed the procedure were excommunicated as well. "God's laws," said the archbishop, dictate that abortion is a sin and that transgressors are no longer welcome in the Roman Catholic Church.
One year later Bishop Thomas Olmsted in Phoenix, Arizona, announced the automatic excommunication of a Sister of Mercy who as a nurse and hospital administrator was one of a team that gave the go-ahead for an abortion. Sister Margaret McBride had claimed that the abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother, who was suffering from pulmonary hypertension.
There is something desperate about the desire of a middle-aged, male hierarchy to stake their Church's reputation on a single and complex issue such as the life of a pregnant woman. Considered as taking an admirable stand by some Catholics, to other Catholics it looks like a lack of compassion and intelligence.
I had hoped never again to turn on a radio and hear Irish male voices argue the toss on the life of a woman. Having lived through too many abortion debates and referenda, I thought that by now we might be able to leave it up to parents and doctors to decide what is best in a situation that they believe threatens the life of the mother. But I was wrong.
The Catholic Church is widely regarded as part of the problem of moral and social collapse in Ireland. The ability of Irish bishops to make exquisite theological distinctions about the truth appears not to extend now to their discerning that they are lending themselves to opportunistic politics and that, in doing so, they may help Fianna Fail back into government before that party is fit for the job.
The highly restrictive Abortion Bill, that could still leave the lives of women such as the late Savita Halappanavar at risk and that avoids serious matters of rape or terminal abnormality in the womb, is Fianna Fail's chance to show that it has changed even a little. Some Fine Gael deputies, misunderstanding Cardinal Brady's ambiguity and the hierarchy's interventions as a moral threat, may be about to give Fianna Fail that chance.