Michael Kelly: 'Varadkar's priest jibe was a cheap shot - he should practise what he preaches on respect and tolerance'
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Leo Varadkar went out of his way to scupper yesterday's Church-State talking shop at Dublin Castle.
When the Pope visited last August, the Taoiseach spoke - apparently enthusiastically - about the need for "a new covenant" between Church and State. He has looked blank when asked about the issue since, but this week's meeting was supposed to be a beginning of sorts. And yet, his crude caricature of priests in the Dáil the evening before will have left a sour taste for many.
He has since apologised, but his choice of priests as his target raises many questions. If Mr Varadkar wanted to accuse Micheál Martin of double standards, he had plenty of places to look rather than the hard-pressed clergy. Characterising the Fianna Fáil leader as being like a priest "who preaches from the altar, telling us to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself" was a cheap shot.
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The impromptu nature of choosing a member of the Catholic Church while under pressure also reveals a fairly widespread consensus that it is open season on the Church and those associated with it in contemporary Ireland. Priests are easy targets.
If Mr Varadkar was looking for a concrete example of saying one thing and doing another, he could've looked much closer to home. He could, hypothetically of course, think of politicians who preach about how compassionate they are while thousands of children are homeless.
The truth is that Mr Varadkar would not make such a nasty attack on any other group in society. Despite the fact that several gardaí have been before the courts in recent times accused of criminality, the Taoiseach would never refer to the scandal of officers of the law breaking the law to make his point.
His own chosen profession - medicine - has seen no shortage of scandalous failings in recent years, sometimes with fatal consequences. Again, this is not what came to his mind despite his oft-quoted insider knowledge of the health service in Ireland. If Mr Varadkar did use either of these examples, he knows that the calls for an apology and even his resignation from the various unions and representative bodies would be loud and persistent.
Catholics also know that the clergy of no other faith tradition would be targeted in this way. When, for example, terrorists claim to be acting in the name of Islam, no politician would ever use this to criticise Muslims because some adherents to that faith espouse love but deliver violence.
It's easy to kick the Church. Who stands up for priests? Most of them are too busy even to muster the energy to mount a defence of themselves or the invaluable work they do all across Ireland.
It might have taken bravery to pick on priests in the 1950s, it takes none today.
During the papal visit, the Taoiseach acknowledged the Church's historic contribution to Ireland with a whiff of "we'll take it from here, lads". And yet, if Brother Kevin Crowley, Father Peter McVerry or Sister Stan Kennedy were not helping thousands of struggling families in Fine Gael's version of a more compassionate society, who would?
Of course there have been priests who don't practise what they preach. Hypocrisy seems almost hard-wired in humans. Priests know all too well the pain caused by the few in their ranks who abused the trust placed in them and wrecked lives.
Ordinary Catholics in the pews know this too. They also know that the overwhelming majority of priests live lives of quiet and dedicated service. Many are heroic in their efforts to meet the needs of their parishioners, often in ways that will never be acknowledged or even become public.
On the depressing occasions when the main headline on 'Morning Ireland' is a fatal fishing tragedy or deaths in a road accident, it is the local parish priest who producers turn to for comment. That doesn't happen by accident. Usually the priest will have been one of the first people on the scene to try to minister to the dead and dying. Very often he will have broken the dreadful news to family members and comforted those left behind during the night.
All across the country - particularly in rural Ireland - the clergy are the people the community trusts to articulate what people are feeling at times of tragedy. It is usually that same priest who will have to find the words to capture unspeakable grief at the funeral a few days later and give people hope for the future. All the while, he is visiting schools, presiding at weddings and baptisms and spending time with the sick, the lonely and the forgotten.
It was a priest, after all, not a politician who called out the dysfunctional paralysis in the North after Lyra McKee's murder.
As a society, we need to grow up. The history of the Church in Ireland hasn't been all positive, but it hasn't been all negative either. Notwithstanding the hurt caused to so many, on the whole priests and the religious have made a hugely positive contribution that far outweighs the bad. Any fair reading of history will show this. The Taoiseach stigmatised the many for the sins of the few - and that's unfair and unjust.
Mr Varadkar's vulgar caricature of priests in the Dáil may have amused the more impressionable of his backbenchers, but it was tasteless and uncouth. Judging by the Taoiseach's smirk, he certainly seemed pleased with himself at the jibe, but the low blow was beneath his office and an affront to priests and Catholics.
Mr Varadkar claims to be intent on building a culture of tolerance and respect where discrimination has no place. Given his performance, this rings hollow. On the contrary, his attitude betrays more than a hint that Ireland is now a cold house for Catholics.
Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper