Cardinal's closeness to Rome alienated many
Cardinal Connell erred in becoming out of touch with the aspirations of Irish society, writes John Cooney.
Undistinguished in Dublin but well regarded in Rome would have been the generally-agreed verdict of Dr Desmond Connell's place in Church history had he stepped down as Archbishop of Dublin just over three years ago on reaching the standard retirement age of 75 years.
However, Pope John Paul II not only refused to accept his resignation but rewarded him with a Red Hat, even though many Dublin priests and laity had lost confidence in their archbishop's leadership.
This surprise appointment to the College of Cardinals should have added to Cardinal Connell's prestige, and allowed him to finish his episcopal days in dignity with a middling pass mark.
But what ought to have been a lap of honour was marked by further controversy as he insulted the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walton Empey, and the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern's then partner Ms Celia Larkin.
Worse still, the Dublin archdiocese - with Cardinal Connell at the helm - rose to "the top of the heap" of child sex abuse cover-ups, according to Father Tom Doyle, an American canon lawyer, in his worldwide survey of priestly deviance.
As some within the media clamoured for Cardinal Connell's resignation, and the Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell, promised sweeping new legislation on behalf of the victims that would relegate Canon law to the level of a golf club, Cardinal Connell looked doomed; especially when Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was forced to step down by Pope John Paul in similar distress.
But Rome did not want a second Boston in Dublin, and gave Cardinal Connell a further reprieve a year agowith the appointment of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin as Coadjutor Archbishop with right of succession.
Temporarily, Cardinal Connell was off the hook, as Archbishop Martin, one of the Vatican's most able and experienced diplomats, promised a less legalistic approach to the child sex abuse issue.
But the damage had already been done to Cardinal Connell's reputation. At the height of the controversy, he had almost broken down and lamented at a news conference in Maynooth that the sex abuse cases had devastated his episcopacy.
It was Cardinal Connell's misfortune that the extension of his period in office coincided with the broadcast of the RTÉ Prime Time programme Cardinal Sins that highlighted his mismanagement in eight particular cases, including those of notoriety such as Father Ivan Payne.
In effect, the programme forced Rome belatedly to address questions which were being raised by both the liberal and traditionalist wings of the Irish Church about Cardinal Connell's continuing tenure.
Like the prelate of his student days in the 1940s, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, Cardinal Connell was to find out the hard way that he had become dispensable despite his ultra-loyalty to Rome.
Paradoxically, from day one of his surprise appointment in succession to Archbishop Kevin McNamara in January 1988, Cardinal Connell was never the choice of the clergy of the Dublin Diocese, but was imposed on them from academic life into the most powerful job in the Irish Church, by Pope John Paul II.
He was appointed with the specific tasks of maintaining Ireland's traditional fidelity to the Holy See, and to rigidly adhere to Rome's enforcement of a "restorationist" interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.
In the former professor of metaphysics at University College Dublin, the Pope thought he had found a man of solidly orthodox theological and philosophical formation, who would preserve Catholic Ireland from seduction by the modern diseases of secularism, sexual promiscuity and consumerism.
The Pope was not wrong in anticipating that Cardinal Connell would follow faithfully the papal line against artificial forms of birth control, divorce and abortion, while ruling out the ordination of both married men and women to the priesthood.
Trained in medieval philosophy and Roman theology at Clonliffe, Maynooth and Louvain, there was no one in the Irish Hierarchy to match Cardinal Connell's intellectual attainments with the exception of Cardinal Cahal Daly.
But where the Roman prescription - and Cardinal Connell - went wrong was that they were increasingly out of touch with the aspirations of an Irish society which was becoming increasingly insistent in its demands for respect of individual rights.
Both Rome and Cardinal Connell's Drumcondra made the monumental misjudgments of equating secular pluralism with anti-God secularism. In the process, even before the revelations of the heinous deeds of rapist clergy, Cardinal Connell's Roman-dictated enthusiasms alienated large sections of a more educated Catholic laity, especially women, and turned off young people.
While it is too early to be too dogmatic about Cardinal Connell's place in Irish Church history, he will clearly rank as one of the most misplaced prelates since Cardinal Edward McCabe in the late 1880s.
Just as Cardinal McCabe is remembered for his condemnation of the women who supported Michael Davitt's Land League, so too will Cardinal Connell find it hard not to be remembered for describing President Mrs Mary McAleese's taking of holy Communion in St Patrick's Cathedral as "a sham".
However unkindly Cardinal Connell may be judged by the bar of history, it should not be forgotten that his main fault was to be uncritical in his implementation of the policies of the Pope both in regard to sexual morality and doctrinal disciplines.
It would be too harsh not to acknowledge his sincerity and remarkable perseverance in coping with difficulties for which he was never pastorally trained to cope.
Surely it will be a relief for him to return to his studies into the work of the 17th century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche in his new retirement home on Iona Road, not far from the north side home in Dublin where he was born in 1926.
His archive may also produce a more nuanced view of how, after initial failures, he came to terms with the evils of child sexual abuse, and took innovative measures to ensure that errant priests would no longer have access to children.
On the positive side, the past year of "co-habitation" with Archbishop Martin has allowed public anger to calm and see the problems more clearly, a legacy which should enable Archbishop Martin to take the kind of humane approach which he promised a year ago.
Archbishop Martin's installation will also enable him to end a period of drift in the Irish Catholic Church and make important choices of auxiliary bishops for Dublin who share his aims of making the Church more inclusive and accountable.
One of the major tasks facing Archbishop Martin will be to win back the many Catholics who have given up their Church in frustration. He is likely to proceed with plans to hold a diocesan pastoral council of clergy and laity.
Above all, he needs to build bridges with Catholic liberals who have been marginalised by both Cardinal Connell and the Pope. Just sticking to the Roman line on issues such as celibacy of the clergy and the prohibition against women priests will fail to revitalise the Irish Church.
John Cooney is a commentator on religious affairs