| 15.6°C Dublin

James Downey: Church will lose the fight it has picked with State

Close

THERE are battles yet to be fought in the war between the Catholic Church and the Irish State.

But the outcome is no longer in doubt. The Church will lose, if it has not already lost.

Which is not necessarily to say that Irish society has won, or will win.

This war was unwise and unnecessary: unwise in the extreme on the part of the church, which started it and promoted it. It behaved as if its relationship with Ireland had not changed since the days when our politicians abased themselves before the Holy See, declaring themselves -- in the notorious words of Brendan Corish -- Catholics first and Irishmen after.

When society here changed, for both good and ill and certainly for ever, Rome and Maynooth continued on the same course, the course of arrogance and narcissism, to borrow a splendid word from Enda Kenny.

Seven years ago, it looked as if they would depart from that course. The appointment of Diarmuid Martin as Archbishop of Dublin appeared to signal a new era in church-state relations, appropriate to the thinking of the 21st century, an era of conciliation and accommodation.

But the new archbishop found himself in a position similar to that of some provincial governor of older times, isolated from his masters at the centre of the empire in Rome and isolated, as well, from most of his own senior officers in their episcopal palaces.

The sex abuse scandals which he inherited were not about sex. They were about power. They were about protecting an institution whose rights took precedence over the protection of the young, over every precept of common decency, ultimately over the law of the land.

And the guilty parties were not confined to the abusers. They included those who covered up the crimes, for whatever reason, and somehow reconciled their actions with their consciences. They included officials of the State who ignored or concealed the evidence. They included those who persuaded themselves that every incident was sporadic, not part of a wider corruption. A lesser degree of guilt, but guilt all the same.

When the crimes could no longer be ignored, when the State set up searching inquiries, the church promised amendment. It collaborated with the State, often with enthusiasm and undoubted good intentions.

But now we have discovered that cover-ups continued into our own times. More shockingly, we have found that the guidance from the Holy See itself was at best doubtful, at worst deliberately deceitful. The stage was set, not for collaboration but confrontation.

That confrontation, long postponed, took place this week, openly and sensationally.

Irish politicians, once noted for their servility, directly defied and attacked the Vatican. There were calls for the breaking off of diplomatic relations and the expulsion of the Papal Nuncio.

These were absurd, and the related debate about the seal of the confessional was nothing more than a red herring. What mattered was the unanimous view of an Irish parliament. No more subservience. What mattered more was Enda Kenny's unique criticism of the Holy See in his brilliantly crafted Dail speech and his declaration that the laws and norms of this democratic republic would prevail.

There was no doubting his earnestness or determination -- or that of his ministers, such as Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald. But another aspect of the debate carried almost equal significance.

Fianna Fail has long flirted with the conservative Catholic lay organisations. Together, they inflicted on us the defeat of the first divorce referendum and the several failed attempts to reverse the Supreme Court judgment in the "X" case.

This time, Micheal Martin and his party could have echoed Brian Cowen's stumbling attempt to defend the Vatican's refusal to help the Murphy inquiry into sex abuse. They did not. They supported the Taoiseach. They nailed their colours to the mast of the Republic.

In the face of this solidarity, the church has to make a choice. It can play the age-old game of obfuscation, or it can climb down with as much dignity as it can muster.

It has room for manoeuvre. In a recent speech, Archbishop Martin said that he was not criticising the Pope but worried about his "collaborators", clearly meaning senior Vatican officials. Was he suggesting that Benedict XVI should take personal charge of the dispute and repudiate the claim, expressed or otherwise, that canon law takes precedence over civil law?

To ask that is to ask a great deal. And there is another difficulty.

Benedict XVI lacks the overwhelming personality of John Paul II. His pronouncements are sometimes obscure and seem to have lost something in translation -- strangely, coming from a man skilled in several languages. This is no way to inspire an audience that longs for certainty and authority but will not accept unthinkingly whatever he chooses to say.

But even if another John Paul II reigned in the Vatican, he could not reverse the revolutionary changes in modes of thought which we have experienced in our lifetime.

When John Paul II visited Ireland, he was greeted with joy and fervour. The Irish church appeared to be at the height of its power and popularity. That was illusory, and in any case the climax for any institution is always followed by its decline.

In the Irish case, the decline has been spectacular -- and harmful, because for centuries we allowed the Catholic Church to dictate our ethics.

We did not develop -- we thought we did not need -- a secular civic ethic. The collapse of trust in the institution has left us high and dry.

Now we have to take our ethics, and our destiny, into our own hands. Is it a bad time, perhaps, for such an enterprise, when we are struggling for survival?

Not at all. Let me quote once again the saying that one should never waste a good crisis. We have an economic crisis, whose outcome we cannot tell. But we also have an ethical and societal crisis, and certainly we can fight our way out of it, with or without the help of the Catholic Church or any church.

Enda Kenny has laid down the principle from which we must begin.

This State is a sovereign independent republic. Everything flows from that. And we have to ask ourselves what are the implications for how we live our lives as social beings and how we relate to the State.

Thus far, the debate on these questions has consisted mostly of thoughtless, confused, self-serving waffle. We must do better. And we can. Just for once, our parliament did not shrink from confrontation when the chips were down. Just for once, our leaders offered some leadership. We can follow the way they have shown.

Irish Independent