Republic's politicians will separate church and state
Published 06/09/2011 | 08:00
It should not pass people in Northern Ireland that something unprecedented is happening in the Republic. The public outrage at the cover-up of child abuse has given Dublin politicians the strength of purpose to confront the Vatican and the Irish Catholic hierarchy as never before.
While the Arab Spring witnessed people-led revolts from Syria and Egypt to Tunisia and Libya, the Irish church is suffering a revolution of its own making. Its authority is challenged by some of the very people who were so unquestionably obedient in the past.
A wind of change blows on this island and elsewhere because of the abuse of trust. We know now that bishops and priests, albeit a tiny minority, turned a blind eye, connived and covered up heinous criminal acts against children.
Innocent victims have spoken belatedly about the cruelty they experienced, but many more will carry dark secrets of abuse to the grave.
Not surprisingly, the Irish justice minister, Alan Shatter, is determined to introduce new civil law legislation aimed at preventing anyone - including Catholic priests - from withholding information.
A penalty of up to five years' imprisonment is proposed for offenders. The message from the Irish government is that Catholic clergy cannot operate beyond the law of the land.
The current clash between the church and the Irish government over the seal of the confessional would have been unimaginable not that long ago.
Time was when the Catholic Church had a respected say in virtually every aspect of life. The hierarchy held a special place in the governance of the Republic, enshrined in the 1937 Constitution. The Church hugely influenced policy-making by politicians on social and moral issues.
A more independent political mood is now apparent and welcome. This has been evident again in the past week as fresh controversy emerges over confessional confidentiality. Politicians and the Catholic hierarchy are on very different wavelengths.
The Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Sean Brady, says: "The seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the Sacrament that any proposal that undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the right of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience."
Dr Brady's view might have been fine in the old days of unquestioned allegiance, but it is not acceptable anymore.
When it comes to the disclosure of information on child abuse, his church was found wanting. Now the Dublin government has little option but to ensure that the law is not bypassed in future.
Dr Brady has put down his marker. His message is that the seal of the confessional, founded in ancient canon law, cannot be compromised by any civil law.
True to its conservative nature, the church is digging another deep trench in the battleground for public support, but so, too, is the Republic's political leadership.
"The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier, or by a collar," Taoiseach Enda Kenny asserted recently.
In response to the Cloyne report, which investigated child abuse in Co Cork, he produced a blistering attack on the Vatican. He said the report "exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago.
"The Cloyne report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism; the narcissism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day.
"The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation'."
No Irish leader has ever been so outspoken. But who will win? I suspect neither the church nor the state.
Judging by Dr Brady's comments, the church will continue as it has always done: abiding by its own customs and turning a blind eye to the new rules of engagement as proposed by the Irish government.
The faithful will continue to confess their sins in confidence. The authorities may even do their best to avoid any embarrassing legal confrontation.
In other words, the church and the state's position look to be incompatible and irreconcilable. Maybe another ambiguous Irish solution to an Irish problem can be found. Whatever the outcome, life in the Republic looks as if it will never be quite the same again as far as relations between priests and politicians are concerned.
The light of respect for the Catholic Church still burns but nothing like as brightly as before.
In the long term, the distancing of church and state is healthy. This island has had enough religious influence in its politics.