Closure of Vatican embassy has wide-ranging implications


Just as we ratchet down our relationship with the Vatican, the British step theirs up, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

THE DEBATE about the closure of the embassy to the Holy See is fascinating. Rather quietly, a consensus has grown up that it was a bad decision. There are lots of reasons why, and Seán Donlon, former secretary general in the Department of Foreign Affairs, articulated some of them in the Irish Examiner, including the obvious one of influencing standards on child abuse.

Some of them fell into the category of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”, as he used the rather unfortunate analogy of relations with the British after Bloody Sunday. We withdrew our ambassador to Britain for two months, then sent him back.

He spoke about Ruairí Quinn’s attempt to change the patronage of schools, and the need to know what the Vatican is thinking. He also spoke of something that might seem somewhat arcane – with a reordering of dioceses a possibility, it is important that the post of Primate of All Ireland remain with Armagh, and not be transferred to Dublin.

In other words, if we still have any aspirations to an all-Ireland Republic, having the Archbishop of Armagh remain as leader of the Irish church has important historic and symbolic implications.

Interestingly, just as we are ratcheting down our relationship with the Vatican, the British are stepping it up. Four cabinet ministers and three ministers of state travelled to the Vatican for talks this week. David Howell, minister of state in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, explained why in an interview with Catholic News Service. “Strengthening its ties to the Vatican will help the United Kingdom in its efforts to confront the global challenges of poverty, arms proliferation, climate change, regional conflicts and threats to religious freedom.” Guess there must be no interest in those issues in Ireland, then?

He went on to say that “blocs of large superpowers are no longer the movers and shakers, but rather those who’ve got the ‘soft power’ and influence around the world; these are the important people, and here we are standing in the midst of that.”

Baroness Warsi, leader of the delegation, made an impassioned plea for Europe to recognise the importance of Christianity. “People need to realise that, in our continent and beyond, Christianity’s teachings and values are as permanent as Westminster Abbey, as indelible as Da Vinci’s Last Supper and as solid as Christ the Redeemer. And that Christianity is as vital to our future as it is to our past.”

She quoted Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that faith is looked down on as the hobby of “oddities, foreigners and minorities”. She talked about undermining people who attribute good works to their belief, and requiring them to deny it as their motivation. She said that true tolerance does not exile religion to the margins, but by having confidence in its Christian heritage, society can then be open to other faiths, and people with no faith. Strong words, indeed, particularly given that Sayeeda Warsi is Muslim.

Her speech has been greeted with fury in some quarters in Britain, because she talked about the deep intolerance at the heart of militant secularism. How dare she, some said, given that she is a Muslim woman at the cabinet table? How much more tolerant can we get?

Others greeted it cynically, including the Anglican blogger, Cranmer, who said that the problem is not militant secularists. He says (and allow for hyperbole) that the problem is that David Cameron prefaces everything he says about religion with “as a church goer” but then proceeds to go further with public policy inimical to religion than Labour ever did.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins, Britain’s best known atheist, decided he was the perfect person to set standards for what it means to be a Christian, and commissioned a poll which showed that most of Britain failed his test.

Yet when Rev Giles Fraser asked him later on radio to give the full title of Darwin’s influential On The Origin of Species, Dawkins couldn’t do so. Sometimes failing a test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

What Dawkins did not highlight, however, was that only 6 per cent of the Britons surveyed do not believe in God. Surely that should have made headlines?

I am always fascinated by how lively debates are in Britain and the US about the role of religion in the public sphere, and how poor they tend to be here. Even the debate about the closure of the embassy to the Holy See may turn out to be the wrong debate. We could end up with a reinstated embassy, but still lose ground for real tolerance.

For example, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the Labour TD who allegedly has a great deal of influence on Ruairí Quinn, bluntly told the Irish Catholic: “Religious ethos has no place in the education sector of a modern republic.”

Recently, too, the Garda sent a file to the DPP on foot of a complaint by a humanist, John Colgan, that Bishop Philip Boyce’s claim in a homily at Knock that the church was under attack from a “godless, secular culture” constituted incitement to hatred against humanists. A large irony deficit going on there, methinks.

If the closure of the embassy provides a rallying point for people who are tired of seeing their faith disparaged, well and good. But it should not distract from other issues with longer-term implications.

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