Things change — and sadly at times. Ireland will no longer maintain an embassy at the Holy See, the government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny, has announced — although formal diplomatic relations will not be broken.
Ireland’s excuse is that, like many governments, it has to trim budgets. Still, this action sends a message.
This action can be regarded as nothing less than downplaying both the status of the Holy See in international relations and a diminishment of contacts between the papacy and the Irish Republic.
Ireland also will close its embassies in East Timor and in Iran. Putting the Holy See in the same group as tiny East Timor, with its population of only 1.3 million, far away in Southeast Asia, and Iran, virtually an outlaw state, is stinging.
Times have changed since 1922 when Ireland, as the Irish Free State, at long last attained independence from Britain.
Then, for the first time in a thousand years, it entered the world of sovereign states. Obviously, the United Kingdom recognized the new government at once. So did the United States, France and all the other major governments of the world.
Ireland, however, chose first to respond to this sweep of diplomatic acknowledgements of its sovereignty by announcing full diplomatic relations with the Holy See, appointing an ambassador to the pope and acquiring a building for its embassy in Rome to the Holy See. When Pope Pius XI in return named an ambassador, or papal nuncio, to the new government in Dublin, the Irish provided a splendid residence for the new papal representative in Phoenix Park, near the official home of the new Irish head of state.
The Irish also accorded the nuncio the status of being the senior ambassador in Dublin and provided that this pride of place, ceremonial but symbolic nevertheless, would go to any nuncio eventually to come, regardless of the nuncio’s tenure.
Of course, in 1922 the overwhelming majority of people in Ireland went to Mass every Sunday. Pious practices abounded. Vocations flooded into the service of the Church.
This level of Catholic religious practice has changed dramatically in Ireland. For a generation now, Ireland very much has absorbed the secularism so rampant on the European continent and increasingly strong in the United States.
On top of this cultural trend came the clergy sex abuse scandal. A long series of revelations came, and others are said still to come. The Church is dying in Ireland by a thousand cuts.
Sexual abuse by priests of the young has outraged people around the world. The fury especially has been intense in Ireland, where Church interests have provided so much of the country’s formal education and social services. After 1922, the public treasury financed many Church projects. Then, in addition, there were the privileges given the Church.
Irish Catholicity traditionally has been strict. Firing so much of the anger among the people, understandably, was the conclusion that they had been tricked. Irish priests preached very strict moral standards. Church leaders not long ago fought the legalization of divorce and have demanded that abortion remain illegal.
Understandably, many Irish people have concluded that the Church was holding its clergy and Religious to another set of rules, in which most disgusting moral offenses were hidden or ignored. Certainly, the strong impression was that efforts to repair damages and to prevent future abuse were not made.
The plight of Irish Roman Catholicity, with its wondrous history of a millennium, sustained at such heavy cost through centuries of persecution, is heartbreaking. Pray for Ireland.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.