Irish echo logo 750x550

Kenny's words will be remembered for decades

If somebody told you that Ireland was the most anti-Catholic country in the western world, you probablywould rush to get your hearing checked, right?

Ireland? Anti-Catholic? Surely you heard wrong. The speaker must have misspoken. Maybe he meant Northern Ireland, home of various anti-Catholic paramilitary groups?

How about mainland Britain? After all, if young Prince William wanted a ticket out of the royal family and the line of succession, all he had to do was marry a young lady of the Catholic persuasion. That would automatically disqualify him from ever sitting on his grandmother's throne one day.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Still, being a Catholic in Britain these days doesn't seem to be all that burdensome, otherwise Tony Blair might have thought twice before marrying one and then converting after his retirement as prime minister.

So if Britain isn't quite the bastion of anti-Catholicism that it once was, and if today's Northern Ireland is governed in partnership with Sinn Féin, then neither should qualify for the title of most anti-Catholic country in the western world.

So, which nation deserves that title? Well, according to noted Catholic writer George Weigel, Ireland - yes, the Republic of Ireland - is, at this moment, the "most stridently anti-Catholic country in the Western world."

So Ireland - not Britain, home of an array of anachronistic anti-Catholic traditions, and not even Northern Ireland, where mobs still excoriate the pope every July 12 - is not only the most anti-Catholic country in the western world, but stridently so, according to Weigel.

If that seems just a little overheated, if not downright bizarre, well, there's a lot of that sort of thinggoing on in Ireland these days.

Weigel was writing in response to Enda Kenny's remarkable speech in the Dáil in mid-July. The taoiseach delivered what one Irish commentator called a "watershed" condemnation of the Vatican and the institutional church in Ireland in the aftermath of yet another shocking report about clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups in the diocese of Cloyne in County Cork.

The report, it must be noted, dealt with accusations made after 1996, in other words, after the country learned of the extent of past abuse and cover-ups, and after Irish bishops pledged to root out the evil in their ranks.

What was striking about Kenny's speech, other than its remarkable words, was its tone: This was no stem-winder. The taoiseach didn't pound the table or wave his arms. He didn't raise his voice. He seemed more sad than angry, although there was no mistaking the anger in his words.

"This is not Rome," he said. "Nor is it industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity, and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish Catholic world.

"This is the Republic of Ireland, 2011. A republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civicorder, where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version of a particular kind of morality will no longer be tolerated or ignored."

Two other leaders have stood in Kenny's place in the Dáil during these long years of scandal in the church. But neither Bertie Ahern nor Brian Cowen of Fianna Fáil could summon the eloquence, the anger, the revulsion, which Kenny expressed to the Dáil.

Reaction was swift from critics who accused Kenny of political grandstanding. Never mind that, as Noel Whelan noted in the Irish Times, the media were given no advance warning that the taoiseach would deliver such a stinging rebuke to the church.

Rather than build up the drama, or leaking parts of the speech to reporters, Kenny and his aides "let the speech take its place in the chronology of a news day that everybody expected to be dominated by the euro crisis and other stories." The "absence of hype," Whelan wrote, "gave the speech greater impact."

If Kenny sought to make an impact, he could not have chosen more-candid language. With cold fury, he condemned "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism, that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day." It is hard to imagine more-memorable words spoken in the Dáil in many years.

Of course, the Catholic church in Ireland is about as popular as the banking industry and Fianna Fáil (is there a difference?) these days. Critics like Wiegel and others seem to believe that Kenny's speech was meant to curry favor with the Irish populace at the expense of an already wounded institution.

It was nothing of the sort. Kenny's words were the words of a practicing Catholic who share with many millions in the U.S., Ireland, and elsewhere, a furious disappointment with an institution that allowed a few clerics to prey on young people. Worse, in Ireland the abuse and cover-ups have continued, as the Cloyne report noted.

Kenny did not say that the Catholic church has, over the centuries, performed a vital and important role in educating the Irish people, in providing them with an identity and purpose, and in comforting the afflicted. Nobody would deny that there are many good, holy men and women in Ireland who are truly doing God's work among the poor, the alienated, and the lonely.

But he did say that the Republic of Ireland will no longer tolerate a culture which sought to protect an institution rather than safeguard children, which sought to evade rather than confront the truth, and which regarded itself as above secular law.

It was a brilliant and brave speech, one that people will remember for decades. See it for yourself on YouTube.