27 July 2011

The "most Catholic country" slips away

Pope Paul VI once referred to Ireland as "the most Catholic country in the world." Now it seems the Irish are slipping the Vatican's leash. Abortion on demand remains illegal and most citizens describe themselves as Catholic, but the Irish people are becoming increasingly secular. The legality of divorce, the widespread availability of contraception and the decline in church attendance all manifest the drift from Catholic doctrine.

And now the unimaginable has happened—the Church has been denounced in the Irish parliament. Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny unleashed what the Guardian called "an unprecedented and blistering attack" on the Vatican's role in the cover-up of abuse. A report released earlier this month accused the Catholic hierarchy of undermining the Irish church's own policy of reporting child abuse to the authorities. Kenny told the Dáil that "the rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, in power, standing and reputation." Strong words, to say the least. The Vatican has responded by recalling its ambassador to Dublin.

Kenny is himself a Catholic with a political base in the country's conservative, rural west and whose party, Fine Gael, has traditionally been the stoutest champion of the church's power and privilege.

One of the most interesting aspects of this spat is that the Irish people are siding with their prime minister. Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the influential newspaper the Irish Catholic, claimed that most Catholics in the Republic would back Kenny rather than the Vatican, referring to "the widespread and positive public reaction to the speech." The lead story in a recent edition, entitled "Time for Penitence," included the words, "Instead of fond memories of a nurturing Church, most remember an arrogant authoritarian Irish Church and a privileged clerical caste that obsessed over sexuality and hell fire and neglected the tender compassion of Christ." "The Taoiseach's speech," it continued, "while unfair in some of the detail, was an emotional roar from much of Catholic Ireland to the Vatican for action now."

Will the action come? Will the Church seriously reform? Or will it continue to hide behind hollow apologies? It seems the Irish are getting tired of waiting.

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