Vatican runs risk of tilting at windmills


ANALYSIS:Rome wants to turn back the clock in Ireland but the church may have the wrong take on the abortion issue

The Holy See has not given up on Ireland. Despite two tempestuous decades of clerical sex abuse scandals, marked by the Irish Catholic Church’s unprecedented loss of credibility and moral authority, there are those in the Vatican who would still like to believe that Ireland can resume its once “proud” role of last bastion of traditional, conservative Catholicism in an increasingly atheist western Europe.

When Pope Benedict XVI last Monday spoke of his dismay that “in various countries, even those of Christian tradition, efforts are being made to introduce or expand legislation which decriminalises abortion”, it was hard not to see this as a specific reference to Ireland.

While it is true that the pope never misses an opportunity to reaffirm the church’s total repudiation of abortion, this comment seemed to go further.

After all, how many countries “of Christian tradition” are currently involved in “introducing or expanding” abortion legislation?

Uruguay, it is true, spent most of 2012 engaged in a bitter abortion debate, but that came to an end in October when it became the second country in Latin America, after Cuba, to legalise abortion.

Apart from that, the only legal initiatives on the horizon concern a series of controversial Bills introduced by Republicans in Virginia, basically aiming to restrict women’s access to abortion and birth control rather than “expand” them.

The pope’s remarks last Monday were made in the context of his keynote speech to the Vatican diplomatic corps.

In another keynote speech, his World Day of Peace speech released last month, the pope had also argued that those who support abortion “insufficiently value human life”.

Not for nothing, this theme was taken up by papal nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown at a World Peace Day Mass in Dublin on New Year’s Day, a Mass attended by President Michael D Higgins and many senior politicians.

The logic of this is that, when it comes to Ireland or just about any other country, the nuncio is the pope’s point man.

When it comes to Irish issues, usually of a clerical sexual abuse nature, the pope has relied on the advice of a small group of senior curia figures – American Peter Wells, a sort of home affairs minister; Moroccan-born Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister; Italian Msgr Ettore Balestrero, the number two at the foreign desk, and Scottish Msgr Leo Cushley, head of the English desk in the secretariat of state and a man who played a key role in the preparation of the pope’s March 2010 letter to the Irish faithful.

When it comes to controversial “local” issues, however, (even if abortion is clearly much more than a “local” issue), the Holy See pays very close attention to the nuncio and the most senior church figures in the land, in this case Cardinal Seán Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

Vatican insiders argue, however, that the nuncio’s input may weigh heaviest given that some curia figures tend to see Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin as the men who keep on turning up in Rome with another damning clerical sex abuse report under their arms.

Archbishop Brown also worked for 11 years alongside the pope at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It remains to be seen how active a role the nuncio intends to play in the abortion debate. Privately, he has told friends that after just one year in Dublin, both he and the Irish church could have done without such a controversial debate, adding, however, that the church did not go “looking for this one”.

His New Year’s Day intervention served as a reminder that while the nuncio is technically a diplomat, he remains first and foremost a card-carrying conveyor of the line decreed by the pope.

Those Vatican observers familiar with the subtleties and complex legal considerations of the Irish abortion issue, however, argue that this may be one situation where the church runs the risk of charging at windmills.

In other words, the Holy See has bought the line that the Government’s proposed legislation will end up as a “thin end of the wedge measure” that will enshrine abortion on demand, rather than merely codify already restrictive abortion legislation, in the process protecting doctors and health workers.

The activisim of the anti-abortion movement, of clerics such as Bishop Leo O’Reilly of Kilmore and of senior legal experts such as Prof William Binchy, may have helped fog up the Holy See’s looking glass.

Anyone who left Ireland back in the early 1980s could have been forgiven for a sense of déjà vu if they returned after a 30-year break this Christmas.

There was Prof Binchy, and others, still beating an anti-abortion drum, just as they did in the “abortion amendment” campaign in the early 80s.

One suspects there are people in Rome who would like to hit the delete button on the last 20 years of sea change in Ireland and pretend that this is still a great little Catholic country. As we said, the Holy See has not given up on Ireland.

PADDY AGNEWis Rome correspondent

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