Belfast Telegraph

Ireland's peace process with a wayward papacy

As the spat between Dublin and the Vatican peters out, a papal visit to Ireland could be back on the cards. Don't bet against the faithful flocking to greet him, says Malachi O'Doherty

It is a year since a campaign was launched to boycott Catholic Mass for one week to send a warning to the Church. This was in the atmosphere of appalled horror that followed successive reports of child abuse and rape on a previously inconceivable scale by men entrusted with the care of the weak and vulnerable.

And there was a new clarity with which people now understood that the Church simply didn't comprehend the damage it had done.

Not much came of the protest. In part, that was because of a bigger protest that had been going on for decades, almost as invisibly as the abuse: the departure of thousands of Irish people from a church that had once known almost universal devotion to its teachings and rituals.

The sins of the Church have so scandalised the people, and for so long, that those who could make a principled stand left years ago.

And with them went many others, for diverse motives, unrelated to abuse, but very strongly associated for many with a sense that the Church was pontificating beyond its reach when it pronounced absurdities on human sexuality.

Many of my generation did not need to know that the bishop was harbouring rapists to work out that his preoccupations with sexual rules over all others enforced a world-view that was of no use to us.

Now the Vatican knows that it has its people in hand because it has a smaller Church made up of those who have already shown that they will stay loyal through any turbulence or scandal.

You would have to assume that, if the Pope himself was caught with his pants down in an orphanage, he could trust in the forgiveness of those who forgave Cardinal Sean Brady.

When confronted by the horror that he had administered an oath of secrecy to abused children, the Primate of All Ireland knew that he was safe in his Church.

Fifty years ago there might have been an Eamonn McCann or a Bernadette Devlin in his congregation and he might not have reached the door without a scalding.

But Sean Brady could say that what mattered to him was acceptance by the church-going Catholics of Ireland - that is, the docile and the demure.

He didn't quite say that the rest of us could whistle, but that's what I heard in his drab complacency.

It's a peculiar irony that the Church's critics lose their power to impress when they stop going to Mass. By walking away, we surrendered our punch.

A kind of natural selection weeds out the sceptics and the half-hearted, the outraged and the marginalised.

And, in the end, the men in the pulpits find themselves looking down at those who have no heart for a fight and some, perhaps, who are so genuinely forgiving and perhaps disappointed in human nature that they just expect scandal and calamity everywhere.

The fight then shifted onto the political ground, when Taoiseach Enda Kenny railed against the Vatican and its alleged interference in a sovereign state.

But the momentum of that blow has been dissipated in quibbling about whether it was literally true that the Holy See had recently disrupted the working of the law.

There is another irony in that those who devised the concept of the sin of omission failed to see what was wrong with their own inaction when they were asked to help inquiries - that it amounted to guilt.

But the question hanging in the air now is whether the row between Ireland and the Vatican is over, or can be diplomatically wound down.

There will be many who will hope that it will come to a dignified rapprochement.

Then, for the sake of peace and amity, Ireland will continue in the pretence that a few streets in Rome around a church and a car-park constitute a sovereign state and that one religious leader can go on working the scam of demanding global respect while denying he has any control over his own delegates, his bishops.

We are to believe that he can summon those bishops and that they will queue to cravenly kiss his ring, but that he has no authority over them; that they are entirely autonomous lords of their own dioceses. He may appoint them, but has no line of command to them.

One of the incentives for a peace process with the papacy is that the Pope might be induced to come to Ireland next year for the Eucharistic Conference arranged for the spiritual renewal of the people, as a solution to the abuse problem. And how would that go down? Well, it would probably go down better than the pundits would predict, as happened when he visited Britain last year.

Some of us would love the quarrels around a papal visit, the questions of who pays for what, especially at a time of financial hardship.

But a good show pulls in the crowds and the real danger is that a grand spectacle would look like Ireland's final reconciliation with the Church that buggered the children.

So don't be surprised if Pope Benedict XVI has the gall to come to Ireland - and the people receive him warmly.

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