What are we to make of Enda Kenny’s photo-op with Pope Francis at the canonisation Mass for St John XXIII and St John Paul II last Sunday? What are we to make of his invitation to the Pope to visit Ireland?
On the one hand it was good to see the leader of the country in Rome for the event and meeting the Pope. On the other hand, it could easily be interpreted as a bid by Enda to win back votes lost by the passage of abortion legislation and the closing of our embassy to the Holy See.
It was notable that in comments after his brief exchange and handshake with Pope Francis, Enda said: “I can’t say that his eyes lit up.”
That would be very much the style of Pope Francis when meeting politicians. Back in Argentina he learned that politicians would often take advantage of meetings with him to win votes and if he was seen smiling too broadly it might be regarded by voters as an endorsement of that politician.
When Francis met Barack Obama at the Vatican recently, Francis looked positively glum in the official photos. The official statement from the American side of the meeting emphasised the common ground they shared on various issues, while the Vatican statement mentioned that they had discussed “religious freedom” issues, a clear reference to recent attacks in the US on the autonomy of Catholic institutions such as hospitals.
Our Taoiseach’s smile for Francis was certainly in marked contrast to the image of him playing with his mobile phone when he and other (often nominally) Christian Democrat politicians were being addressed in Rome by Pope Benedict a while ago.
The contrast between Sunday’s handshake with Francis and the stinging attack he made on the Vatican in July 2011 following the publication of the Cloyne report is ever greater.
Enda put his change of attitude down to a change of attitude on the part of the Church towards dealing with the abuse scandals. Actually, for quite some time now the Church has had in place was is probably the strongest child protection system in the country, and since 2001 the Holy See has taken a much tougher attitude towards offending priests with hundreds being laicised even when State authorities didn’t have enough evidence to convict a given priest.
The resignation of Benedict and the election of Francis have also made it much easier for the Irish Government to change its attitude towards the Holy See and the Church. Francis is immensely popular and it would do the Government, and Enda in particular, no harm at all if some of that popularity rubbed off on him.
Pope Francis now has an invitation both from the Government and from the bishops to visit Ireland. He will have in front of him invitations from all over the world, so he has to pick and choose from countries which have their own very good and pressing reasons why a visit from Francis would be very beneficial.
The Church here in Ireland obviously badly needs a shot in the arm. A visit by Francis would provide it. What might tempt Francis to come here is the prospect of completing St John Paul’s pastoral visit in 1979 which in the end did not include a visit to the North because of the Troubles.
A visit by a Pope to the North would be an incredibly important symbolic moment.
But any visit by Pope Francis to Ireland could not be seen in any way, shape or form as an endorsement of this Government. This is why it would be best to delay any visit until after the next election in 2016. That is not far away in any case and Francis will have plenty to keep him occupied in the meantime.
This is the Government, after all, that introduced abortion, is planning on introducing same-sex marriage and is continually sniping away at Catholic schools.
It would not be right to pretend none of this has happened. What would it say to Lucinda Creighton and the six other Fine Gael TDs and senators who were expelled from the party for voting against abortion if Enda Kenny was seen to be gaining the endorsement of Pope Francis?
What would it say to them about the huge political sacrifice they made? If anyone deserves a photo opportunity with Francis it is Lucinda.
And what would it say to the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets to protest against the abortion law if Enda is able to bask in the reflected glory of Pope Francis as if nothing has happened?
What it would tell the Government itself is clear. It would tell the Government that it can attack the Church and many of the things it stands for with absolute impunity, and as soon it suits the Government to cosy up to the Church again, the Church’s leaders will come running.
Enda is perfectly well aware that there are few votes to be had from being photographed with members of the Irish hierarchy but there are a lot of votes to be gained from being photographed with Francis.
But Rome will also know this and it is why it will probably think it prudent to delay a visit by the Pope, if there is to be one at all, until after the next General Election and not before it.
In fact, when you think about it, a visit before then might even backfire on the Government if Francis took the opportunity to even gently chastise it over the passage of abortion legislation, its undermining of marriage and its attacks on faith schools. Now there is a thought to give the Government nightmares.