State seeking to gain control over church


OPINION:The Government’s undiplomatic outburst shows it has another agenda, writes SÉAMUS MURPHY

FOLLOWING THE publication of the Cloyne report, the Government denounced the Vatican for undermining Irish laws and demanded a full and comprehensive explanation. It got just that recently; and it is not interested. On child protection, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has given good leadership to the Irish church, but that wasn’t enough to give weight to his plea that the Government take the Vatican response seriously.

The Government’s current excuse for its undiplomatic outburst and refusal to engage with the Vatican response is that it was expressing Irish people’s feelings. But the Government should lead, not follow the loudest shouters. Its dismissal of the Vatican’s response as “legalism”, after having accused the Vatican of failing to respect Irish law, shows contempt for canon law.

The Government and the Cloyne report claim that the 1997 letter from the papal nuncio to Irish bishops encouraged church officials to violate the Irish bishops’ policy of reporting sexual assault of minors to the civil authorities. Yet the report offered no evidence to show that the relevant official in Cloyne had been so influenced.

Is the nuncio’s letter really having the effect Government officials think? If I (not a canon lawyer) were a religious superior who had to deal with a credible allegation, the official church positions influencing me would have been (a) the Irish bishops’ framework document policy of reporting cases to the civil authorities, (b) the traditional church teaching that the civil law be respected, and (c) the words of the late pope John Paul II that “there is no place in the priesthood for those who would harm children”.

I would have viewed the nuncio’s letter as bearing only on canonical legal technicalities and not affecting the general principles, and hence irrelevant to what I had to do. The Vatican response to the Government confirms the appropriateness of such a stance.

From my experience, there is no evidence that the nuncio’s letter is being widely misinterpreted by Irish church officials. Far closer to the truth is Archbishop Martin’s remark about church officials in Cloyne and elsewhere who failed to report cases to the civil authorities: “They were people who regarded only their own views and would take no note of study documents, of framework documents or even of approved papal norms.”

They ignored canon law, even more than civil law. And after the Murphy report highlighting the neglect of canon law in Dublin as one of the causes of failure to deal with clerical abusers, no responsible person has any right to say canon law is irrelevant or an obstruction to protecting children.

The Government is uninterested in the experience of priests. Instead it has toyed longingly with the fantasy of requiring priests to reveal the contents of Confession. It is fantasy because such a law would ensure that no paedophile would ever again admit in Confession to such acts, and because there is a host of legal obstacles to enforcing it. Reluctantly, for pragmatic reasons and not reasons of principle, the Government has abandoned the fantasy.

What does it all say about the view of Irish political parties of the place of religion in a modern pluralist society? A liberal state is limited, does not seek to control all groups in civil society, and holds to church-state separation. The idea that priests should be made divulge the contents of Confession (assuming that could be done) entails making the priest an official of the State and the Confession box an annex to the Garda station. Indeed, the widespread idea that the church should be “made accountable”, where this is understood as accountable to the state, amounts to saying that the church should be a department of the state. It is one thing to hold that clerics and lay people are, as citizens, accountable before the civil law. It is quite another matter for the state to threaten to dictate to a church how it should conduct its rituals, and how its internal affairs should be run. Those are attempts at controlling the church. Not for nothing did Chinese government media express approval of the Irish Government’s attitude to Vatican involvement in Irish church affairs.

The same lack of respect for religious freedom appears in the dismissive rejection of canon law. A properly liberal state, respecting the principles of subsidiarity and pluralism, would want non-governmental organisations to regulate themselves. The Murphy report highlighted the failure of Dublin diocesan officials to enforce canon law against clerical abusers. If the Government had wanted canon law enforced, it would have taken the Vatican document seriously. The dismissal of the document as “legalese” shows that the report’s lesson has not been learned.

The short-lived threat to interfere with Confession, the barely concealed desire to undermine the Vatican’s authority to enforce canon law in the Irish church, the off-hand dismissal of the Vatican response, and the effective refusal to accept that the church has a right to conduct its own affairs all reflect a mentality in Irish political life that seeks control of the church, under the pretext of making it “accountable”. This is not about protecting children: it is a different agenda.

Fr Séamus Murphy SJ is a Jesuit priest, teaching in Chicago