I have never been inside the beautiful Irish Embassy to the Holy See -- the famous Villa Spada, with its glorious 17th century architecture -- and now, evidently, I never will be. For it is to be closed down and sold off, ostensibly as a measure of economics, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore. But the scratchy relations between the Irish State and the Vatican must, we all know, be factored into the decision.
Although Cardinal Sean Brady has expressed his "profound disappointment" at this decision, many people will support it. The country can use the €1.17m a year that the closure will save; and diplomatic links between Ireland and the Holy See can now be handled from Dublin.
I agree that the savings are in accord with the austerity measures that everyone is facing these days. And paradoxically, I think it may well be better for any Christian faith to act simply and humbly, rather than in the style of a grandiose Renaissance prince.
The most inspiring aspects of Christianity were those that occurred in a spirit of simplicity, humility and serving others: Francis of Assisi casting aside all worldly possessions; St Vincent de Paul turning his life around to care for the poor; Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker, dedicating her life to improving the conditions of prisoners reflecting Christ's teachings; and Fr Matthew dedicating his life to the redemption and rehabilitation of penniless alcoholics. These are the great manifestations of faith, not the splendour of fine buildings, worldly status or even dazzling works of art.
Thus, it may well serve the higher spiritual cause of the faith and the faithful that the gorgeous Villa Spada should be flogged off. For a true Christian, it should be more important to consider the plight of the poor, the sick, the dispossessed or those with spiritual needs.
However, whether getting rid of the Villa Spada, and the historic links it represents with the Holy See, is good for Ireland in the long run, is a different question entirely.
Ireland will not sever all diplomatic connections with the Holy See, but by definition they must henceforth be downgraded. You cannot conduct nuanced diplomatic conversations from Iveagh House in St Stephen's Green to Rome: long-distance connections can never replace face time when it comes to networking.
It follows that Ireland will be seen as a less important link in the globalised network connected to the Holy See -- a network that is constantly growing and expanding. So many countries once cut off from Rome for reasons of political ideology now have full diplomatic relations and in many cases have established embassies within the Vatican City -- Estonia, Albania, Serbia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan.
In Pope Benedict's time, Montenegro, the United Arab Emirates, Botswana, the Russian Federation, and most significantly, the most populous of all Muslim states, Malaysia, have established formal diplomatic links with the Vatican.
Diplomatic talks between China and the Vatican have taken place, and it cannot be long before the pragmatic Chinese, although opposed to Rome's influence (for fear of interference with Chinese faith practice), will also open an embassy in Vatican City. The Holy See's connections with Africa (and even with parts of the Arab world) are too important for Beijing to ignore.
Just this week, Pope Benedict was named by 'Forbes' magazine as among the six most powerful men in the world. China will be highly aware of that.
In all, there are diplomatic links with 179 countries, and the Vatican also has a vast deposit of historical experience in international diplomacy (the archives are fabulous). Its first diplomatic links were with France in the 5th Century. In 1500, the Holy See's papal nunciatures were codified; by the 17th Century, papal diplomacy had become significant in European affairs. By the 18th Century, the Gaelic bards were looking to the Holy See for support.
So this is the historic club from which the Irish State has decided to downgrade its membership. The economic reasons are understandable and the anger over the clerical abuse scandals justifiable.
But did not General de Gaulle once say that "nations do not have friends -- they have interests. And the duty of a nation's leader is to defend the nation's interest." That is the somewhat unemotional -- if not cold and calculating -- tradition of Tallyrand. You don't have diplomatic relations with another state because you like it or approve of it, diplomatic relations exist to serve the best interests of your country.
And does it serve Ireland's best interests to distance itself from a diplomatic network whose universal reach is matchless?
There is an echo, here, of a previous Fine Gael-led coalition, which also walked away from another globalised network -- when Ireland quit the Commonwealth of Nations in 1949, the Fine Gael Taoiseach John A Costello being manipulated and propelled by the Anglophobe republican Sean MacBride. De Valera was appalled at the imprudence of severing all links with a worldwide association that could have been helpful to this country -- especially in the matter of bridge-building with the North.
The Commonwealth of Nations is, today, a remarkable grouping of 54 independent states whose most influential members are hosts to many Irish emigrants -- Australia and Canada -- and whose de facto dominant power is now India.
The Commonwealth and the Holy See -- twice, now, Ireland has snubbed international associations that could, with skilled diplomacy, be supportive to this country, especially if the eurozone project goes into meltdown.
Is this called the politics of Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face?