Crass economic view of Vatican link a sure way to burn bridges


It is petty indeed if the Labour Party is seeking to placate its core vote by closing the embassy

THE US state department has responsibility for American foreign relations. The June 2011 edition of its human resources publication, State Magazine,has a colourful cover showing the Swiss Guards, flagging a profile of the US embassy to the Holy See.

Inside, the embassy is described as managing “a set of issues that is unusually broad and complex for a small post”. A small post, by the way, means five foreign service officers.

The article explains that “the Holy See has diplomatic relations with 178 states and is a member or observer in nearly every major international organisation. Only three or four other states conduct diplomatic relations on a wider scale.” The US embassy works with the Vatican on issues of mutual interest, such as nuclear non-proliferation, interfaith dialogue and action, global health and economic development. The article points out that “the church’s extensive humanitarian aid networks positively affect the lives of millions, Catholics and non-Catholics alike”. It refers to the UN estimate that the Catholic Church provides 27 per cent of care for HIV/Aids patients worldwide, and is often a “first responder” in humanitarian crises such as that in Haiti.

It describes the church as the “world’s oldest social network”, and an unparalleled listening post, “where the United States can gain new international insights”. It allows the US to reach “a large, global audience – often in places unreachable by traditional means”.

This year, the embassy co-sponsored an international conference, Building Bridges of Hopewith a pontifical university, bringing together Christians, Jews and Muslims to discuss development, conflict prevention and environmental protection.

While the US embassy busies itself with building bridges, our Government seems intent on burning them. Sure, it has not cut off diplomatic relations with the Holy See, just downgraded them severely by closing the embassy.

The US government, vastly more powerful and better resourced than we are, can recognise the unique nature of the Holy See. We are prepared to sacrifice our relationship, with a churlish comment that it is of no economic value.

It betrays very worrying attitudes. In the 1950s and 1960s, Ireland punched way above its weight internationally. Seán MacBride, as minister for external affairs, was a key force in the acceptance of the European Convention on Human Rights. At the UN, Frank Aiken regularly supported oppressed peoples, such as the Tibetans and Hungarians. Thanks to his leadership, Ireland played a key role in the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

During the week, Éamon Ó Cuív, deputy leader of Fianna Fail, wondered whether we had lost interest in human rights, disarmament, freedom of religion and the developing world. These are all areas of concern we share with the Vatican.

He spoke of the loss of the most extraordinary network – where a connection from the Vatican, to the local bishop, to the local priest or religious on the ground, meant access in three steps to invaluable information often not available through any other channel.

He referred to the closure as an “irrational decision”, and said saving €700,000 was merely a fig leaf for a political decision.

For me, that is one of the most worrying aspects. The smaller party in government is always conscious of having a stream of high-visibility actions that placate its own core vote. If this is the reason for the closure of the embassy, it is petty indeed.

In theory, the social teaching of the Catholic Church should be something that the Labour Party would be in broad agreement with, such as the Catholic belief that business should always be at the service of humanity, not the other way around.

Yet with his crass comment that the Vatican served no economic purpose, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore showed he was incapable of building on common ground. Certainly, there is deep and justifiable anger focused on the Catholic Church in this country at the moment. However, if the Irish State itself were to be judged solely on its record regarding the care of children, we would be in deep trouble.

Despite the battering its authority took because of the way in which it handled clerical sexual abuse of children, the Vatican remains a formidable moral voice on many issues, including climate change. It is on its way to becoming the first carbon neutral state. Oh, I forgot. That’s no longer a Government priority.

Gilmore’s actions show he does not understand the importance of “soft power”. The term was coined by former Harvard dean Joseph S Nye jnr, who said there were three ways governments can achieve goals – by threats (hard power) , inducing people with payments (economic incentives) or attracting or co-opting them (soft power).

There is no doubt the Vatican state is, to say the very least, an oddity. According to State Magazineit has only 572 citizens. Its history is equally odd, given that its current incarnation came about due to negotiations with Mussolini. Oddest of all is its strange mixture of miniature state and major religion.

Oddity or not, it deploys soft power right around the world. If the Government has issues with the Vatican, surely the way to resolve them is to engage in more robust dialogue, not to downgrade relations?

Ireland has few friends. We have been reduced to humbly accepting the stray crumbs from the negotiating table where the important players haggle. It hardly seems the time to burn any more bridges.

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