'Irish question' in Vatican now more political than spiritual


ANALYSIS:This is hardly a declaration of war, but it is still an indication of Vatican annoyance with the Government, writes PADDY AGNEWin Rome 

THE HOLY See’s decision to recall papal nuncio Giuseppe Leanza is a clear indication of the extent to which the Vatican has been both taken by surprise and highly annoyed by the Taoiseach’s unprecedented attack in the Dáil.

That the nuncio might be asked to return to Rome in the current circumstances is perfectly normal, but such an order would usually be done quietly and without fanfare. In this case, however, the Holy See announced the unprecedented “recall” in a communique, knowing all too well this would attract worldwide media attention.

This is hardly a declaration of war, a step that historically has often been preceded by the withdrawal of an ambassador, but it is still an indication of Vatican annoyance with the Government.

In particular, it is believed that the Holy See feels the Cloyne report’s criticism of the Vatican, related to a 1997 letter from then nuncio, Luciano Storero, is based on a mis-interpretation of a 14-year-old letter, and one which most certainly would not be couched in those terms were it to be written today.

The characterisation of the Vatican, or parts of it, as “disconnected, dysfunctional and elitist”, appears to have touched a very raw nerve.

While deputy Vatican spokesman Don Ciro Benedettini pointed out it was only logical that the nuncio be recalled in order to help with the preparation of the formal response to the Cloyne report requested by the Government, this still remains a highly unusual step.

The Vatican spokesman himself indicated the gravity of the moment when in an informal briefing with reporters he spoke of “a certain [Holy See] sense of surprise and disappointment at some of the excessive reactions [to the Cloyne report]”.

Fr Benedettini did not indicate which reactions he had in mind, but it is only logical to conclude he was referring to the Taoiseach’s comments in the Dáil last week.

Experienced Vatican commentators struggled last night to recall the last time the Holy See had recalled a nuncio in such circumstances. The move clearly suggests that even the Holy See has decided that the Irish question is no longer a “spiritual” matter relating to the irresponsible governance of the Irish church by its own clerics, but has become a “political” issue concerning relations between Ireland and the Holy See.

The papal spokesman stressed that the “main reason” for the recall of the nuncio was so he could “consult” with the secretariat of state and other Vatican departments involved in the preparation of the formal response to the Cloyne report. Fr Benedettini added: “Given that the recall of a nunzio is a step rarely taken by the Holy See, this indicates the seriousness of the situation, as well as the willingness of the Holy See to confront it with objectivity and determination, notwithstanding a certain note of surprise and disappointment at some excessive reactions.”

It was not clear last night just who had ordered the move, but sources indicated it would not necessarily have required the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, currently on holiday at Castelgandolfo, but might rather have been handled by the secretariat of state.

A small but not irrelevant indication of the Holy See mood came last weekend when Msgr Gianfranco Girotti, number two at the apostolic penitentiary, told Il Foglio newspaper the Holy See would never accept Irish legislation that might attempt to break the seal of confession, saying: “Ireland can pass all the laws it likes but it should understand that the church will never accept the obligation on a confessor to report to civil authorities . . . even in the case of the most abominable crimes, such as paedophilia, he is obliged to absolve the sinner if he is convinced that he is genuinely penitent. Reporting cases to the magistrates, prison and the sanctions provided by the laws of a state, they are a whole other thing.”