Cardinal George Should Reconsider, Meet Irish Prime Minister

By Colum Kenny
Chicago Sun-Times
February 29, 2012

DUBLIN Viewed from Ireland, Cardinal Francis George's decision not to dine with the prime minister of Ireland at the Chicago Irish Fellowship Club St. Patrick's Day dinner this year certainly looks like a snub. His absence will not impress Catholics in Ireland.

But George says that he was not told last week that Prime Minister Enda Kenny would be attending. When he turned down the invitation, his office says, it was simply because of a prior commitment to attend a youth retreat.

My suggestion would be that he think again. In reporting the news last week, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed raised the possibility that George's decision not to meet with Kenny might be part of an Ireland-Vatican tiff. The cardinal's office denies this, however, saying the cardinal once even declined an invitation from the pope so as to keep a date with 300 parish leaders in Chicago.

Catholic bishops and the pope's representative in Ireland have consistently mishandled child sex-abuse scandals. The Irish government's recent decision to close its Vatican embassy (among others) as a "cost-cutting exercise" has been seen in Ireland as an expression of official frustration.

For Americans who knew Ireland even 20 years ago, the collapse of the Irish Catholic Church may be hard to grasp. There has been a major shift in public attitudes in Ireland, right across generations. And it was not the sexual abuse itself that was crucial to that change, but the less than forthright way in which Irish bishops and Rome have reacted. One exception has been the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who is generally held in high esteem by the public.

Martin's reward? To be passed over by Pope Benedict in a recent international round of promotions to the rank of cardinal.

Again and again, bishops have been seen to be less than open and honest. Cardinal Desmond Connell, now retired, even articulated a theory called "mental reservation" that attempted to justify deceit. The public was sickened.

When the pope's representative in Ireland failed to cooperate clearly with one of a number of enquiries into child sexual abuse, the government was outraged. Kenny delivered a stinging rebuke in the Irish parliament and spoke about the failure of the Vatican in ways that captured the public's anger.

Kenny's strong speech was still a surprise, not least because his political party is traditionally conservative and Catholic. Soon afterward came the closure of the Vatican embassy. The rift with Rome has delighted liberals who never had much time for the Catholic Church. But it has dismayed many Catholics whose ancestors long drew strength from the faith of their fathers through centuries of persecution and poverty. With Ireland under financial pressure at present, its citizens miss some of the old consolations.

But most Irish people do not blame Kenny for the problem. And they will see George's absence as just another in a long line of ill-judged moves by the church hierarchy. The later-disgraced cardinal of Boston, Bernard Law, once scolded then-president of Ireland Mary McAleese on a visit to the U.S. for not doing more to oppose the liberalization of Ireland's laws on contraception.

While abortion is still illegal in Ireland, most Irish Catholics have long ago decided to reject their church's teaching on gay relationships, divorce and state support for contraception.

By attending dinner at the Irish Fellowship Club on March 16, George could help to mend fences between the Vatican and Ireland. And he might take the occasion to ask himself if Catholic voters in America are really more conservative than Catholic voters in Ireland when it comes to the matter of contraception.

Colum Kenny is a professor of communications at Dublin City University.


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