Friday 26 August 2016

You're wrong, Mr Gilmore – Church's interest in charity is nothing new

Published 24/01/2014 | 02:30

Pope Francis looks up as he talks during a pastoral visit at the Sacro Cuore Basilica in downtown Rome January 19, 2014. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Pope Francis looks up as he talks during a pastoral visit at the Sacro Cuore Basilica in downtown Rome January 19, 2014. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Pope Francis looks up as he talks during a pastoral visit at the Sacro Cuore Basilica in downtown Rome

We shouldn't get hung up one way or the other on whether the Government's decision to reopen our embassy to the Holy See was a 'U-turn'. What matters is that they have reopened it.

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What's interesting is that the decision to close it caused such a backlash in the first place even among politicians who are often very critical of the church.

When Ireland StandUp established itself to fight for the reopening of the embassy, they organised a petition and a meeting in Buswells hotel across the road from Leinster House. Lots of politicians from across the political spectrum turned up to offer their support.

One evening a short time later, the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, was visiting Leinster House. The Dail was in session. When Archbishop Brown was spotted in the public gallery by some of the TDs below, he was invited instead to sit in the distinguished visitors' gallery and was warmly applauded by most of the TDs.

We can be almost certain he was applauded as a gesture of support following the closing of our embassy to the Holy See.

It's a curious thing that the closing of the embassy, while it was certainly hailed in some quarters, should have been opposed even by politicians who are not known for their ardent Catholicism.

It's especially curious given that Enda Kenny's assault on the Vatican in his Cloyne report speech was so widely praised a short time previously.

For some reason, ordinary Mass-going Catholics seemed more peeved by the closing of the embassy than they were by that speech, or by the subsequent refusal to protect the Seal of Confession in our law, or by the various attempts to curb the rights of denominational schools, or even in some cases by the introduction of our new abortion law.

Something about it seemed to rankle with people. Maybe it was just a symbolic step too far. Eamon Gilmore said it was because of cost-cutting, but how many other countries in dire financial straits had done anything like this?

In any case, a one-person embassy will shortly be reopened and Mr Gilmore says he is doing it because of the Holy See's supposedly renewed focus on "hunger and world poverty" under Pope Francis.

Welcoming the decision to reopen the embassy, a statement from the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin said: "The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who in the past represented the Holy See in many international development forums, has today welcomed the news that the Government is to re-open the Irish Embassy to the Vatican."

There is a key fact in the above statement worth noting, namely that Archbishop Martin has "in the past represented the Holy See in many international development forums".

The reason this is worth noting is because it is far off the mark for anyone to suggest that the Vatican or the Catholic Church generally has only suddenly become interested in "hunger and world poverty", as Mr Gilmore put it.

It is true that Pope Francis has been particularly insistent in talking about these things, but it is not true to say that the Vatican wasn't keenly interested in these issues before. Or that the Catholic Church wasn't interested in them.

In his new book, 'Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development', Robert Calderisi writes at length about the huge contribution the church makes to development and education all over the world.

Mr Calderisi has intimate knowledge of development issues. He has 30 years of experience in international development with the Canadian government, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank.

He points out in his book that, worldwide, the church runs 140,000 schools, 5,500 hospitals, 18,000 clinics, 16,000 homes for the elderly and handicapped, 10,000 orphanages, 12,000 nurseries and 37,000 centres of informal education.

Mr Calderisi observes that 65pc of the hospitals are located in developing countries.

Here are some other facts he draws attention to: in some African countries, 30-50pc of basic health and education services are provided by the church; Catholic organisations distribute about one-third of all the anti-retroviral medicines people living with HIV/AIDS receive around the world; Caritas (the Catholic network of humanitarian agencies) is the largest private charity after the International Red Cross with an annual budget of $3bn.

This is a truly gargantuan effort. If the Catholic Church was to vanish off the face of the earth tomorrow, the hole left behind would be enormous. Huge numbers of people would suffer. Cynics will insist it's all about control, of course, but let them say that.

Pope Francis remarked a while back that the church shouldn't be 'obsessed' with issues like gay marriage, abortion and contraception. It isn't. The problem is that when the church talks about development issues and poverty it is usually ignored. When it talks about those other things it often gets huge coverage, and therefore it leads to the completely false impression that it is 'obsessed' about them.

The above facts and figures ought to show that the huge majority of the church's energies are poured into what were once called the 'corporal works of mercy', which is as it should be. In reopening the embassy to the Holy See, therefore, the State will be simply reattaching itself more firmly to an enormous worldwide poverty-relief and education effort that has been going on for centuries and will carry on for centuries more.

Irish Independent

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