Ireland’s embassy to the Vatican should not be re-opened
The decision taken last November to close Ireland’s embassy to the Holy See has aroused considerable dissent among government backbenchers. Fine Gael TDs are overwhelmingly of the view that the decision ought to be revisited; a large number of Labour TDs reportedly disagree with the party leadership and fear that their party has been hijacked by an unrepresentative secularist minority. Eamon Gilmore, Minister of Foreign Affairs, hinted that the decision will be reviewed if economic circumstances improve. Both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent today suggest the need for such a review.
The campaign for re-opening the embassy gained momentum with yesterday’s Irish Examiner interview with Sean Donlon, who was once secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Ireland’s most senior diplomat. While he unequivocally supported Enda Kenny’s now notorious speech on the Cloyne Report last July, he feels that the closure of the embassy was a step too far. He stresses that he is speaking as a diplomat, not as a member of the Church.
“It was never intended that the embassy to the Holy See would deliver economic returns, no more than, for example, we have two embassies to the United Nations — one in New York, one in Geneva — and they don’t make any direct contribution to Ireland’s economic interests.
“They’re there to promote Ireland’s political interests or human rights interests. Not every mission has a specifically economic function.”
Mr. Donlon’s following assertions should prompt caution among Catholic critics of the embassy closure:
“Embassies do not just provide consular assistance to citizens. Presence on the ground in key states is crucial when it comes to successfully representing Ireland’s political, economic and cultural interests, he says.
“If you’re on the spot, essentially what you can do as compared to when you’re not on the spot is, you can monitor and assess in detail what’s happening on all these fronts, and if necessary, you can influence policy before it’s formed.”
These are practices and motivations characteristic to international diplomacy. It’s difficult, however, to see how any of them are conducive to the interests of the Irish Catholic Church. Indeed, Mr. Donlon strongly hints that they are not:
“If you step back and look at the structure, a bishop is appointed by Rome and he is directly responsible to Rome.
“The national hierarchy has no function other than the bishops meet to have chats about policy. But, for example, John A Buckley in Cork doesn’t report to Dermot Clifford in Cashel, even though one is a bishop and the other is an archbishop, and none of them report to Cardinal Brady in Armagh; they all report directly into Rome.
“So if you’re trying to influence policy — for example, take the one Ruairi Quinn is currently working on, which is clerical patronage in primary schools — the policy on that effectively will be formulated in the relative congregation in the Vatican, and they will send the policy to the individual bishops who will then negotiate with Ruairi Quinn.
“So it is in my view pretty important to have a set of eyes and ears on the ground in the Holy See so that you can watch the development of policy, so that you can see what the influences on policy are, and in particular, so that you can basically represent the Irish interest in the formulation of that policy.”
[...] ”We have several issues for negotiation with the Holy See,” he says. “First of all, their attitude on child sex abuse — we need to make sure that they come into line with Irish Government policy.
“Secondly, (there is) the education front where, as I say, Ruairi Quinn is trying to reconfigure the structure of the Irish educational system to recognise that the role of the Catholic Church inevitably is going to be different now compared to what it was 50 years ago.
“Thirdly… the issue of control of the ethos of hospitals by religious orders. Again, one has to question, in a country where the practice of Catholicism has diminished as it has over the last generation, is it appropriate that so many of our publicly funded hospitals should operate on the basis of a Catholic ethos?”
Mr. Donlon seems to be suggesting here that diplomatic relations between Ireland and the Vatican would provide a means by which the government could influence Church policy and would thereby facilitate the further secularization of Irish society. As an experienced diplomat, he presumably knows his stuff and his words demand careful consideration.
In any case Mr. Donlon gives us an insight into the likely lop-sided nature of relations between the Irish government and the Vatican. In a previous post, I explained why I do not believe that diplomatic relations between the two countries are in the interests of the Irish Church and why it would be best if they were fully severed. Mr. Donlon’s comments only reinforce that belief.
The question Irish Catholics need to ask themselves is this: do we really want a hostile, increasingly secularist set of politicians actively influencing the internal affairs of Irish Catholicism, especially at one of the most decisive moments in its history? We must think rationally about this issue and what is in the best interests of Catholicism in Ireland. Above all we must resist impairing our perspective by being provoked into knee-jerk anti-anti-clericalism.