Monsignor Denis Cremin a man of deep courage and conviction

He had all the obvious qualifications, not least his post as Professor of Moral Theology in Maynooth, but the call to be a member of the Hierarchy never came. He was a victim of Church politics as much as anything else.In his latter years, in retirement in Maynooth, he was port

Kenmare-born Monsignor Frank Cremin, who died recently, aged 91 years, was a gifted theologian, who, in other circumstances, might well have been appointed Bishop of Kerry.

He had all the obvious qualifications, not least his post as Professor of Moral Theology in Maynooth, but the call to be a member of the Hierarchy never came. He was a victim of Church politics as much as anything else.

In his latter years, in retirement in Maynooth, he was portrayed as a figure from the past, clinging on to the old Church at a time when it needed to embrace new challenges. He was regarded as out of step, a conservative who longed for the predictability and stability of pre-Vatican Two.

It was a wrong image. It only emerged relatively recently that Monsignor Cremin was regarded as something of dangerous radical at a time of the Church-State clash between the then Minister for Health, Dr Noel Browne, and the Hierarchy over the mother-and-child scheme. The Church bitterly opposed the scheme, which proposed free health care for all expectant mothers.

The bishops were afraid of such State control over women’s health, fearing that it opened the way for what they regarded as undesirable developments, such as the provision of contraception. They were strongly supported by the medical profession.

The bishops won the battle. But time would prove that they lost the long-term war. Dr Browne resigned as Minister, and the controversy caused the collapse of the 1948-51 inter-party government.

Monsignor Cremin got to know Dr. Browne through a mutual acquaintance. They were to remain friends, with Dr Browne once remarking that he owed what faith he had to the theologian who had advised him during the controversy.

The Monsignor’s view, at variance with the Hierarchy, was that the mother-and-child scheme strongly resembled aspects of the National Health Service, which was then being introduced in Britain. If the NHS was acceptable to the Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland, why not have a similar scheme in the Republic ? Time would prove him right.

It was impossible for him to publicly express his views, but he argued them with considerable conviction in private. In doing so, he had a row with another Maynooth professor, Monsignor William Conway, who, in 1963, was appointed Archbishop of Armagh. Six years later, there was a vacancy in the Kerry diocese with the retirement of Bishop Denis Moynihan.

Cardinal Conway was adamant that it would not go to the Kenmare man. Instead, he wanted a Kerry-born priest, Father Eamonn Casey, who had made a name for himself working with the homeless in London. There was to be no further advancement for Monsignor Cremin, even in Maynooth.

A career that had promised much from his time in St Brendan’s College, Killarney, Maynooth and in Rome, and then back to the academic staff in Maynooth, had hit a cul de sac. By the time Eamonn Casey was being appointed to Kerry, Monsignor Cremin had returned to the traditional Church.

In 1968, he appeared at a press conference with the then Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Charles McQuaid, in favour of the papal encyclical which confirmed the Church’s ban on artificial contraception.

In retirement in Maynooth, he continued to take an interest in political and Church affairs and was always keen to express his views to visiting journalists. During the first divorce referendum, he said that Catholics were duty bound to vote no if they wished to act as Catholics who were loyal to their Church and its teaching.

He added: “For many years in Ireland, a wrong concept of conscience is very prevalent amongst our people — including some priests, and it has to be said, perhaps even some bishops.” It was strong stuff, dismissed at the time by those who felt he was out of touch with modern Church thinking. It was also the kind of remark that confirmed his image as a traditionalist.

Few knew of his association with Dr Browne and his support for the mother-and-child scheme, a courageous act at the time which cost him dearly in career terms. To dismiss him as somebody out of touch with modern thinking, at a time of great change in Ireland, would be deeply unfair.

When Dr Browne published his autobiography, ‘Against The Tide’, in the 1980s, there was some thought given to naming Monsignor Cremin as the theologian who advised him at a time of crisis many years earlier. But on the advice of the mutual friend who had introduced them in the 1940s, it was decided that he would remain anonymous. In retrospect, it was a mistake, given that the revelation would have led to a more rounded assessment of the Kenmare man.

He was a regular visitor to Kerry over the years, as was his brother, the late Con Cremin, who spent many years as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs. One commentator observed, following the Monsignor’s death, that his old-fashioned Kerry faith sustained him in his latter years.

That, no doubt, was true. But he was a much more complex figure than he was made out to be. He was a man of deep convictions, which were always strongly expressed irrespective of the consequences for himself. Indeed his courage in supporting the mother-and-child scheme, in the Church-dominated Ireland of more than five decades ago was truly extraordinary.