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Debate persists over closure of Vatican outpost

March 7, 2012

By Staff Reporter

The former Irish embassy to the Vatican.

The decision of the Irish government to close its embassy to the Vatican last fall continues to have reverberations. Furthermore, these seem to be causing much more anxiety to the government and media in Ireland than they do in the Vatican.

The Irish foreign minister, Eamon Gilmore, continues to insist that the decision was based on cost-cutting considerations though subsequent reports indicated that the Vatican outpost was one of the cheaper Irish embassies to run.

So it is hard not to assume that it was a punitive gesture toward what was seen as the Vatican’s inadequate response to the clerical sex scandals in Ireland.

A few months earlier Taoiseach Enda Kenny had delivered a perfervid address in the Dáil in which he quoted the pope out of context and was uninhibited in attacking “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism – the narcissism – that dominate the culture of the Vatican.”

His speech, and a letter to the Vatican from Gilmore, were prompted by disturbing revelations in the Murphy Commission’s report about sexual abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne in Cork. That diocese’s vicar general acknowledged having not forwarded information on certain cases to the gardai, despite recommendations by the Irish bishops to do so, because a letter (mid 1990s) from a Vatican official had downplayed the compulsory character of the hierarchy’s directives.

A lengthy reply by the Vatican to Gilmore’s complaint was a thorough, thoughtful, and, necessarily, subtle explanation of inner church relations, specifically as to whether national hierarchical directives automatically receive papal sanction, especially if not requested.

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The reply went at great length to indicate papal outrage at the offenses and also approbation of the Irish church’s efforts to correct things. In addition, the year before, the pope had specifically directed international church investigators, included now Cardinal Dolan of New York, to appraise the situation in the Irish church.

But to Gilmore, the response was “highly technical, highly legalistic, very much dancing on the head of a pin.” That is scarcely the language appropriate for a foreign minister commenting on a message from another sovereign state.

Some defenders of the closure wonder why the Vatican “dogmatically” insists that embassies accredited to Italy might not also serve as embassies to it.

Zealous letters to Irish newspapers even argue that the Vatican doesn’t deserve the status of a sovereign state, that Ireland should not have diplomatic relations with it, and express the hope other nations might take a cue from such an Irish example.

In reality, increasing numbers of nations, many without a Catholic, or even Christian heritage, don’t think so and are ready to comply with papal insistence on their embassies being distinct from their missions to Italy.

Within Ireland, a backlash has slowly begun to develop against the closure, including from a significant portion of Fine Gael backbenchers.

Really telling arguments supporting the maintenance of an Irish embassy have come from former senior members of the Irish diplomatic corps. One is the former secretary general of the department, and before that ambassador to the United States, Seán Donlon.

In an interview on RTE, Donlon emphasized the importance of a mission to the Vatican in view of the mutuality of interests between it and Ireland on a number of international issues, including world poverty, environmental concerns, and peace keeping in general.

Appropriately wary of “megaphone diplomacy,” he noted that the Vatican was one of the first states with whom the newly independent Ireland was glad to have diplomatic relations.

As for Vatican insistence on an embassy distinct from that to Italy, he recalled the outrage the Irish had when several nations in the 1970s had suggested their ambassadors to the United Kingdom could also serve as representatives to Ireland.

Another critical voice was that of Michael Lillis, who served some time in New York in the 1970s, and who. in the 1980s, was part of a UN commission examining human rights in Cuba. As prelude to that task, Lillis visited foreign ministries in Madrid, Bonn, London, Paris and Washington, D.C., as well Italy and the Vatican.

He found all of the visits with one exception to be “a waste of time”, being uncommitted, uninformative, or propagandist either in favor (Spain) or hostile (Washington) to Cuba.

He thought the Vatican representatives, on the other hand, were “extraordinarily well-informed.” The depth of their knowledge left all the other foreign ministries “looking either completely politicized, or inadequate, or frankly ignorant.”

Such commentary about the appropriateness of the embassy to the Vatican must have struck home as The Irish Times religious affairs correspondent, Patsy McGarry, devoted a column to the issue.

McGarry noted increasing pro-Vatican statements by “the usual suspects, lay voices who make a living from defending the institutional church when it is safe to do so.” He was also surprised by the, “interventions by former Irish diplomats Seán Donlon and Michael Lillis.”

But McGarry showed his true colors, and probably those of the foreign minister, when he argued that the Vatican’s unresponsiveness during the Murphy inquiry on Cloyne, made “the decision to close the Irish embassy to the Holy See … appropriate and proportionate, regardless of the costs argument.”

The Irish Times itself editorially suggested that complaints about secularist and media intolerance of the church are simply a way of shooting messengers telling of the decline of interest in the church.

But does not the paper’s outrage reflect a similar intolerance of messengers drawing a picture different than their own?

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