The Vatican, Cloyne and Diplomacy

Ken McDonagh


Enda Kenny’s 20th of July speech on Child Protection was broadly positively received by Irish public opinion. That it was given by a practicing Catholic and leader of a conservative and Christian democratic party only amplified the message that a final straw had been reached as regards child protection and the responsibility of the Church in relation to civil law in this area.

The speech, and the diplomatic spat that followed, has also served to highlight the curious case of Vatican sovereignty and the dual role of the Pope as both spiritual and temporal leader. The temporal power of the Pope traces its roots to the donation of Pepin, a Frankish king, in the 8th Century and not the fraudulent ‘Donation of Constantine’ occasionally used by medieval Popes to attempt to assert their authority over the kings of Europe. As the power of the Papacy and the size of the Papal states waxed and waned over the centuries, the Holy See emerged as the unit of Papal sovereignty regardless of the size or even, occasionally, the lack of actual territory. Regardless any uncertainty over the status of the Pope as a temporal sovereign was finally resolved with the Lateran Treaty in 1929, signed between Mussolini’s government and the Holy See recognising the latter as having sovereign jurisdiction over the Vatican City State. The most visible sign of Papal sovereignty is the extensive diplomatic network of Papal legates or Nuncios as they’re more commonly known spread across more than 180 countries worldwide. These representatives act outside of the structures of national churches as direct ambassadors for the Holy See to the national government in question and “to make stronger and more effective the bonds of unity which exist between the Apostolic [Holy] See and particular churches” (1983 Code c.364. Canon 364 as quoted in Martens, Kurt “The position of the Holy See and Vatican City State in International Relations” University of Detroit Mercy Law Review, Vol. 83, p.744)

Just as the Pope holds a dual role as temporal and spiritual leader, the Nuncio’s primary role relates to the link between the local and Roman church and secondarily as a diplomatic representative to the secular authority. It is in this context that the 1997 letter to the Irish bishops should be read. As should the subsequent refusal of the Nuncio to actively cooperate with the enquiry first on the grounds that an approach was not made through the appropriate diplomatic channels and then on the grounds that they had nothing to contribute. The Holy See’s claim in response to Enda Kenny’s speech that they never actively impeded a state inquiry is reminiscent of Don Rumsfeld’s dissembling on Iraqi WMD. The Vatican appears to be arguing, to paraphrase the former Defence secretary, that ‘absence of cooperation is not evidence of obstruction.’

The challenge for the Irish government now is what to do in terms of diplomatic relations with Vatican. To date the government has treated the response by the Holy See in a perceptibly cool manner. Eamon Gilmore, speaking on Morning Ireland today, was noncommittal on the appointment of an Irish Ambassador to the Holy See albeit using the political cover of the comprehensive spending review. Similarly the Vatican is yet to appoint a legate to replace Giuseppe Leanza who was recalled following Kenny’s speech and is now due to be sent to Prague.

The Irish government needs to carefully assess a number of questions before making its next move. From a diplomatic perspective, they need to decide how valuable the network of contacts and information made available through diplomatic links with the Vatican, the only material benefit of such links, are to the interests of the Irish state. If these are a significant asset then the government will have to swallow hard and seek to mend bridges with the Holy See. On the other hand, the Government needs to assess the role a foreign state which, has demonstrated a considerable reluctance to cooperate with the national government, plays in the provision of education and health services in this country. Particularly given recent events where the Vatican has shown itself quite willing to glide between its temporal and spiritual role depending on circumstance. To draw an analogy, imagine if a child protection scandal were to engulf the Goethe Institute or Alliance Francaise? Would we not expect immediate and open cooperation from the German and French governments in any inquiry that followed? And if we found that either government had, via diplomatic channels, expressed reservations about reporting concerns to Irish authorities, wouldn’t there be consequences for diplomatic relations?

In its response to the Cloyne report, the Vatican has firmly chosen to don its temporal sovereign hat and as such the Irish state should have no qualms about treating the Vatican as it would any other state in similar circumstances. We’ve expelled diplomats for lesser crimes in the past. At the very least, any return to normal diplomatic relations should be dependent on the government being satisfied that future cooperation with State enquiries will be forthcoming.

2 thoughts on “The Vatican, Cloyne and Diplomacy

  1. There is no context issue here.

    Anyone who is told that a child (or anyone else) is being abused: sexually, physically or emotionally has a duty as a human being to help that person.

    The idea that a priest would listen to someone admit to such abuse and do nothing to help the victime is as far removed from the basic humanity that the church is supposed to be built on that it almost defies belief there could even be any discussion that the response from that priest is to immediately get help, no matter where he was told about the abuse and certainly not in some wooden box in a church.

    The idea that the church would try justify that failure because the wrong form wasn’t ticked or whatever is nothing short of disgusting and to see all these old grey men who’ve inflicted so much misery on so many people with their warped view of the gift of sexuality is abhorrant.

    It almost makes me want to believe in heaven and hell so that there would be some chance that the priests and nuns who inflicted such horrors on people for decades would get their punishment.

    By even pandering to the church and allowing there to be a discussion on this issue is an insult to the victims of abuse.

  2. Fantastic post Ken, very informative. I think this is a story that will unfold very slowly. At the same time, non Catholic residents in Ireland are beginning to raise their voices in the debate.

    The Late Late show debate the other night showed up tensions between Catholics and non-Catholics, but also seemed to identify points of consensus. For me, there seemed a broad agreement that some schools should be allwed to remain Catholic, but that the number of such schools should be a much smaller proportion than is currently the case. Looks like we’ll be seeing a lot more ‘educate together’ schooling in the future.

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