Played crucial role in Mother and Child row

 

Monsignor P. F. (Frank) Cremin, who died on November 1st aged 91, was a theologian of the old school whose classically orthodox life and career concealed one of the most fascinating episodes in 20th century Irish history - his crucial role as a secret adviser to Dr Noel Browne in the Mother and Child controversy of 1950-51.

Born in Kenmare, Co Kerry, on October 10th 1910, Frank Cremin was a member of an extraordinarily gifted family - a brother, Con, spent many years as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, where he wielded huge political influence over a succession of governments. The young Frank shared a bench, in his local primary school, with another talented son of Kerry - Noel Hartnett.

The two went on to be close contemporaries at St Brendan's, the diocesan seminary in Killarney. Their paths were to cross many years later when the two Noels, Browne and Hartnett, were combating the bishops and the medical profession in the crisis which led to the implosion of Seβn MacBride's Clann na Poblachta party and the collapse of John A. Costello's 1948-51 inter-party government.

In Killarney and in Maynooth, he was a brilliant student, securing his doctorate in two years in Rome before being appointed as a professor of theology at Maynooth at an unusually early age. He combined a classical approach to the teaching of theology with a robust personality, which did not particularly endear him to some of his elders, regardless of how much they would have shared his views.

His role in the Noel Browne affair came about effectively by accident.

He was friendly with Brian Walsh, later a judge of the Supreme Court but at that time a young barrister who taught French part-time at the college. A casual conversation between the two men about the Mother and Child controversy, then beginning to take shape, led Walsh to suggest that Frank Cremin might like to meet Browne, with whom Walsh was friendly. This led, in turn, to one of the most unlikely relationships in Irish politics. As late as 1968, Browne, who had by then become a byword for agnosticism if not for atheism, declared - without identifying Frank Cremin - that he owed what faith he had to his encounters with the theologian who had advised him during the crisis.

Frank Cremin's view on the morality of Browne's scheme, which bore a close resemblance to aspects of the National Health Service then being introduced in Britain, was that if the NHS was acceptable to Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland, what was morally wrong with something similar on this side of the Border? It was impossible for him to express such views in public, but some of their colleagues were aware of a brief altercation he had with Monsignor William Conway, another Maynooth professor, on the wisdom of the bishops' statement condemning the scheme. In Frank Cremin's view, it was a bad day for the church; in Monsignor Conway's view, it was the opposite. History was to prove Frank Cremin right.

When Monsignor Conway was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1963, Frank Cremin's career was, as he began to perceive himself, moving into a kind of limbo.

Bright young Maynooth theologians often got bishoprics, but he found himself passed over for preferment again and again. He became a trusted peritus, or private theologian, to the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr McQuaid, for the duration of the Second Vatican Council, but this resounding guarantee of his orthodoxy (it is fascinating to speculate as to whether Dr McQuaid was aware of his earlier role, and it is not impossible that he was) failed to secure his promotion. He saw the see of Kerry go first to Kevin McNamara, and then to Eamonn Casey, his sense of frustration undoubtedly intensified by the former's translation to Dublin and the latter's subsequent disgrace in Galway.

His problem now was not that he was not orthodox enough, but that he was too orthodox. Cardinal Conway's subtle approach to the re-shaping of the Irish Hierarchy during his period as Primate of All-Ireland had no room for a man who now saw dangers, rather than opportunities, as the key factors facing the church in the modern world, and who, had he become bishop, would not have hesitated to speak out against anything he considered temporising or weak-kneed on the part of his fellow clerics. In Cardinal Conway's finely balanced strategy for church-state relationships, not least in the context of the developing Northern crisis, he would have been too much of a loose cannon. In such a situation, his pastoral instincts, which were strong, withered on the vine, and he became known to a new generation of more questioning Catholics principally as the man who was chosen by Dr McQuaid to proclaim the virtues of Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical which maintained the church's condemnation of artificial contraception, to a bemused collection of journalists in Dublin in the summer of 1968.

Almost 20 years later, when Noel Browne's book Against The Tide was being written, there was briefly a question of whether he would allow his role to become public at last.

Brian Walsh's advice, offered in Frank Cremin's best interests at a private meeting which also involved Browne and Hartnett, was that he should keep his involvement secret. For Frank Cremin, this decision was a continual source of regret. He felt, especially at around the time Browne died in 1997, that had he allowed his name to become public he could have maintained both an intellectual and spiritual relationship with the former Cabinet minister, and perhaps blunted the edge of Browne's later bitterness towards the Catholic Church. It was a church which was, he felt by then, in grave danger of losing its way in a morass of relativism, ill-advised appointments, and theological confusion, a church in which only his old-fashioned Kerry faith continued to sustain him.

He is survived by his sister, Bridget (Cissy).

Monsignor Patrick Francis Cremin: born 1910; died, November 2001