AS heated as the abortion debate in Ireland has become, there was palpable embarrassment and unease among many Catholics at the raising of potential excommunications and public refusal of communion at Mass for politicians who vote for abortion legislation.
This embarrassment was compounded by Cardinal Brady's failure to rule the threat out in the future and his successor Primate elect Archbishop Eamon Martin's clear statement that politicians who vote for abortion are excommunicating themselves and should not approach the altar rails for communion. The intervention sounded medieval to many and a politicisation of the Eucharist. For those hostile to the church, it was, they said, a return to the type of ecclesiastical bullying of politicians common in the past.
Recently elected Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin seemed to agree, saying while politicians have to think seriously, they were nervous about politicising the Eucharist. So was this a mis-step by the heir apparent in Armagh?
Archbishop Eamon Martin appeared to be taking the line laid down in 2004 by then Cardinal Ratzinger in a letter of 'General Principle', which states that where a Catholic politician consistently campaigns and votes for 'permissive' abortion, he is to be cautioned that unless he changes his 'sinful' ways, he will be denied communion at Mass. It says that a Catholic who votes for such a politician because of his stand on abortion also cannot approach for communion.
When this letter was written in 2004, the US bishops were struggling to figure out how to deal with Catholic politicians who voted for abortion. Ratzinger's letter taken to its ultimate conclusion in the US, where some 46pc of the United States' 67 million Roman Catholics identify as pro-choice, would mean excommunicating 32 million people, something the church is not prepared to do. It is claimed that when the American Cardinal McCarrick received the letter, he failed to show it to the other US bishops until it was eventually leaked in Rome.
Yet even Ratzinger's letter, which has some weight but is not church law, provides for a level of discretion in these matters to avoid a public politicisation of the Eucharist. He says that a politician's pastor should meet with him and instruct him and warn him. In other words, whether a Catholic should or should not attend communion is between the priest/bishop and the individual.
Archbishop Eamon Martin's public utterings in this matter failed to emphasise the private pastoral nature of all of this. Otherwise the impression is given, and many took it to mean this, that bishops are using the threat of excommunication and refusal of the Eucharist to impose their political will, thereby fighting politics at the altar rails.
The Pontifical Academy for Life at the Vatican takes a clear line. Speaking to this correspondent this week, a senior expert on abortion said that issues such as excommunication should belong in the private forum and the bishop or priest should approach the politician privately.
He also stated that excommunication was a pastoral issue, where the politician who votes for abortion has pushed themselves outside of the Catholic community and that the church wants him or her to reflect, change their ways and come back.
So where does all this leave Irish Catholic politicians? If they vote for pro-abortion legislation, they are, it seems, automatically excommunicated. Their priest or bishop would need to tell them that until they change their stance, they should not present for communion. This suggests that there must be a dialogue between politician and priest.
There may be an arguable case for the politician that he is voting for medical abortion where the life of the mother is at risk. This would not fall under the heading of Ratzinger's 'permissive abortion' criteria.
What is certain is that the Vatican will not be excommunicating any Irish politicians and it is very unlikely that the Irish bishops will either.
Politicians are invited as Catholics to explore their conscience.
Could we see Taoiseach Enda Kenny being refused communion at the Mass to inaugurate the new Archbishop of Armagh? It is unlikely, as Mr Kenny will have made his own arrangements with his own priest/bishop, and for another priest or bishop who wasn't aware of those discussions to deny communion to Mr Kenny or anyone else would be an abuse of the Eucharist and a political statement at the altar rails.
Garry O'Sullivan is Vatican Correspondent for 'The Irish Catholic'