An Irishman's Diary

Thu, Jan 26, 2006, 00:00

In retrospect, writes Kevin Myers, the real turning point in Ireland came when government minister Emmet Stagg was not summarily sacked after coming to Garda attention while loitering in an area of the Phoenix Park used by male prostitutes.

This moral supinity was then compounded by the general approval bestowed on it by liberal Ireland, already triumphant that it had another representative in the Park, but about somewhat different business: president Mary Robinson. One of those participating in the cretinous applause was this columnist, then a card-carrying member of the Liberal Ireland Club.

But I now realise: such "tolerance" was utterly absurd. You cannot have government ministers behaving like this, and then being allowed to keep their jobs, no matter how personally painful dismissal is for their families.

Next, we had a Taoiseach who arrived in other countries on official visits with a woman who was not his wife, yet nonetheless expecting them to treat her as if she was. He had one wife in Ireland, the mother of his children, and another, slightly more exotic wife for foreign travel. How very Polynesian.

Not even French presidents, who have mistresses because the French constitution apparently insists they do, expect foreign governments to treat their extra-marital consorts as Mrs President. But here in Ireland we had two Mrs Taoiseach - until that is, one day we found Celia Larkin was no longer the foreign Mrs Taioseach. Suddenly, the country that had twice constitutionally banned divorce now had the swiftest divorce laws in the world.

Sooner or later it was inevitable that the Catholic Church would start emulating Liberal Ireland, and sure enough, in the affair of Mossie Dillane, it has. Thus Bishop John Kirby on a 73-year-old cleric fathering a child by a parishioner 42 years younger than him: "I hope that the priest, who has ceased to work in the diocese, the mother and all those involved, will be given appropriate time and space to plan for their respective futures. I consider this to be a private matter, and as such, I will make no further comment."

"Appropriate time and space"? Where is this - Clonfert or California? And what's this about it being "a private matter"? A priest violates his oath of celibacy and fathers a child by a parishioner, possibly an impressionable one, and certainly young enough to be his grand-daughter, and it is not on the main order of the local bishop's business? For crying out loud, Bish, get a grip, will you?

Let's state the obvious here, because it clearly is no longer obvious. It's not wrong for the Irish Catholic Church to have rules, nor is it wrong to proclaim them (if it can remember them, which seems unlikely) especially when they have been flagrantly violated by one of its trusted lieutenants. Having sex with one of your parishioners is not an optional extra of the priesthood, not least because of the extraordinary role of the confessional in the ministry. That Mossie Dillane encouraged general confession doesn't mean that he didn't give private confessions; and anyway, he stood towards his parishioners, strong and weak alike, as a psychiatrist stands towards his patients.

Now you can declare that the church's insistence on a celibate priesthood is outmoded, absurd and unreasonable. A perfectly fair stand to take. However, the church is not run by opinion polls, but its own rules, and unless it enforces those rules, it is not a religion but a football crowd going home.

Commitment is the antithesis of freedom. You cannot be a carnivorous vegan. You cannot drink vodka at AA meetings. You cannot have the bereaved lap-dancing at a funeral. You cannot be all things to all AA vegan lap-dancing widows - unless, that is, you're the Irish Catholic Church of 2006. In which case, you Catholics can apply whatever definitions of Catholicism you like, because far from any lad in purple objecting, he will instead urge others to give you time and space. You think atheist she-popes should be allowed to canonise their lesbian lovers? Sure, no problem. You want to ordain your wooden horse? Groovy, baby.

In all the catalogue of sexual abuse by clergy of the past decade, there was this single, consoling feature: that the Catholic Church had all along known the difference between right and wrong, which is why it tried to hush up and conceal the visibly, palpably evil. But nowadays, does it have any moral opinions for public pronouncement? Does it openly condemn aberrant behaviour and acclaim the virtuous? Or is it all a matter of individual choice, so that a priest's particular interpretation of his vow of chastity is pretty much up to him?

The Catholic Church is not alone in losing moral perspectives. It is symptomatic of our time that in the Dillane case, both the names of the mother and the child have been published. That a mere baby might be made famous simply because his father is a septuagenarian Catholic priest is the quintessential barbarity of our new value-free Ireland.

The Sunday Independent - which perpetrated this infamy - last week also conducted a poll asking people whether they condemned or condoned the priest. Nearly 80 per cent of its respondents did not think it wrong for an elderly Catholic priest to violate his solemn oath of celibacy and have full sexual intercourse with a parishioner two score years younger than him. Which is only what you might expect in this modern and utterly unprincipled liberal ethos.

So henceforth, you may drive in whatever direction on whatever side of the motorway you like. It's up to you, OK? Far out, man.