Pope relies on just handful in Vatican for Ireland policy

Thu, Jun 7, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:ONE OF the most regular observations made by Vatican insiders is that, for a small country of only four million no longer so devout Catholics, Ireland earns itself a disproportionate amount of Holy See attention.

In recent years, the Irish bishops have been summoned to Rome for a two-day “crisis” meeting with Pope Benedict XVI; the pope has written a highly unusual Pastoral Letter . . . to the Catholics of Ireland; and 18 months ago the Vatican sent in the “heavy brigade from headquarters” for an apostolic visitation to Ireland.

The full consequences of that visit still have to be felt but recent personnel changes at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome suggest the initiative may yet leave its mark on the church in Ireland.

When it comes to an issue such as Ireland, decisions and policy in the Vatican are taken essentially by three or four people, with a little help along the way.

In reality, of course, all-important decisions are taken by the pope but the crucial question is: on whose advice does he most rely when it comes to Ireland?

Traditionally, a pope relies most heavily on his secretary of state, in this case Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

While the pope places huge trust in the cardinal, a long-time collaborator, when it comes to Ireland Bertone’s influence may be less critical.

For a start, as recent events at the Vatican bank IOR and in the papal household indicate, the cardinal spends a lot of his time playing Italian-only politics.

Secondly, Bertone is not a diplomat; he does not speak English; and his understanding of the Anglo-Saxon world has its limitations.

Essentially, then, the pope relies on the small number of high-ranking anglophones in the Vatican to help out with Ireland, people whose opinion counts.

Among these are such men as US Msgr Peter Wells, the “assessore” of general affairs at the secretariat of state; Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect at the congregation of bishops; and the current papal nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown.

Men such as the Vatican’s “foreign minister” Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, and his number two, Msgr Ettore Balestrero, would also be likely to have a say in Irish matters, but at a step removed.

Likewise, obviously, when something such as the pope’s pastoral letter was being written, this was done in co-ordination with the relevant congregations (departments) which might have been expected to have a say, such as the congregations for the clergy, for doctrine of the faith, for bishops and for religious life.

In the case of that letter, the co-ordination was obviously done by the secretariat of state, the nerve-centre of Holy See governance, with the letter again being “handled” by another anglophone, in this case Scotsman Msgr Leo Cushley.

There is, of course, one other important “player” when it comes to Ireland, namely Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, whose German-speaking skills and many years spent in the Teutonic College in Rome mean that, in a very particular way, he has the “ear” of the pope, if not of all his advisers.

The case of the pope’s interview book Light of the World two years ago made the point.

At the very moment when Ireland-based Vatican commentators were claiming that Archbishop Martin had had “his wings clipped” by “Rome”, the pope did a most significant and unusual thing.

In his book, he quoted Archbishop Martin as an authority on the handling of clerical sex abuse.

In Holy See speak, such a mention in papal dispatches represents not just a resounding vote of confidence but also an indication that this is someone to whom the pope listens.