In his marvellously acerbic memoir Against The Tide, published in 1986, former minister for health Dr Noël Browne describes an encounter with the Catholic Bishop of Galway Dr Michael Browne in 1951 when the minister was attempting to win support for his Mother and Child scheme: "He handed me a silver casket in which lay his impeccable hand-made cigarettes. 'These cigarettes,' he intoned, 'I had to have made in Bond Street.' Then he offered me a glass of champagne. 'I always like champagne in the afternoon,' he informed me in his rich round voice. My feeling of awe was mixed with a sense of astonishment that this worldly sybarite considered himself to be a follower of the humble Nazarene."
Browne subsequently had an audience with Cardinal John D'Alton of Armagh, whom he described as "a pleasant, withdrawn, scholarly looking man. Our conversation was stilted and formal". In relation to a query about the justification for the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to Browne's health scheme given the use by Catholics in Northern Ireland of the National Health Service, D'Alton was disdainful: "We are prepared neither to apologise, nor to explain."
I was reminded of Browne's encounters when thinking about the recent death of Cardinal Desmond Connell and the news this week that clerical child abuse victim Marie Collins has resigned from the Commission for the Protection of Minors due to her frustration with some officials in the Roman Curia and a Vatican department that would not commit to acknowledging letters from victims of abuse.
In the aftermath of his death, central to the narrative of the experiences of Connell was the idea that he was particularly ill-suited to his position as archbishop and it had been cruel to appoint a deeply academic man to fill such a role in 1988.
It was, and inevitably Connell’s career underlined again the question of the distance between church leaders and the Catholics they were supposed to lead and the sense that they would not engage with those they deemed ill-qualified to speak on matters they thought should have remained the preserve of church academics or leaders.
Connell was more Cardinal D'Alton than Bishop Browne. He was particularly preoccupied with what he regarded as theological competency, absolute truth and the science of metaphysics; he had no truck with what he considered unqualified people speaking about religion. When Fintan O'Toole profiled him in 1988 for Magill magazine, he highlighted that one of Connell's first publications was in the Jesuit journal Studies in 1957; a book review in which he complained about unqualified people talking about religion on radio. According to O'Toole this article reflected "an impatience with the modern world in which mass communications gives all sorts of people the right to be heard on subjects he believes they know nothing about".
Connell did and said what he thought was correct based on what he regarded as principle and truth, and he followed that truth and its consequences with vigorous logic.
Child sex abuse
It is likely that his aborted attempt in 2008 to get the
to intervene to prevent certain documents being handed over to the inquiry into allegations of clerical child sex abuse in the diocese of Dublin was also motivated by vigorous logic, despite the impact it would have on public opinion, and more importantly, on the victims of child abuse.
After the Second Vatican Council, Connell admonished British theologian Leslie Dewart for daring to suggest that an understanding of God and the church's dogma would have to be "drawn forth from contemporary experience".
As far as Connell was concerned, truths central to his church’s teaching are eternal and unchanging.
Ironically, given the preoccupation with castigating those who did not understand absolute truths, Connell in 2002, rather than participating in RTÉ's Cardinal Secrets programme, engaged in what the late journalist Mary Raftery called a "pre-emptive strike" by circulating to his 200 parishes a letter apologising for the failures of the past and blaming them on a lack of understanding within the church of paedophilia.
But the 2009 report on clerical child abuse in Dublin categorically rejected this given the decision in 1986 to take out an insurance policy to protect church assets from abuse victims. Connell did apologise for clerical sex abuse and was appalled by it, but he was also sufficiently imbued with an academic disdain for being led by “contemporary experience” that he struggled to deal humanely enough with the child abuse issue.
That struggle is not just historic; based on the experiences of Marie Collins it would seem that despite everything revealed in the last 30 years, there are still powerful bureaucrats in the Vatican who think they know best, just like a mid-20th century Irish bishop smoking handmade cigarettes and drinking champagne while dismissing a scheme to give poor mothers and their children free access to state medical services.