Enda Kenny was among world leaders in the Vatican at the weekend for the canonisations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Speaking to the Taoiseach afterwards at the Pontifical Irish College he was in no doubt that he felt honoured to be present at the ceremony.
It’s quite a turnaround from Mr Kenny’s infamous Dáil speech in which he denounced the Vatican, misquoted Pope Benedict and accused Rome of trying to thwart Irish efforts to deal with abuse (though when a spokesman was asked what the Taoiseach was referring to, the spokesman admitted that Mr Kenny had no particular instance in mind).
There is little doubt that there was some merit in some of the points Mr Kenny made. Though the fact that he laid everything at the door of the Vatican and had no word of criticism for Irish Church leaders betrayed a certain Gallican tendency in Mr Kenny’s own Catholic faith and among those house-trained clerics with whom he discusses matters of religion.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has also chosen a new ambassador to the Vatican whose name will be forwarded to the Holy See for agrément. All going well, the embassy will be reopened by the end of this year, albeit with only one diplomat.
Mr Kenny has been consistent in claiming that the embassy was closed based purely on economic considerations. That’s hardly plausible. Especially given that the decision to re-open the embassy was announced just over two years after the closure and the economy has hardly performed spectacularly in the meantime.
While in Rome Mr Kenny was at pains to point out how much he admires Pope Francis. At the Irish College he said he told the Pope that he is creating “a very different impression of a Church”. Mr Kenny went on to explain to reporters what type of Church he felt Pope Francis should lead: it “has to be based on simplicity, and on the needs of people and what they want from the Church that they believe in”. Mr Kenny said that Pope Francis had made an “extraordinary difference” to the perception of the Church.
It’s very clear that Mr Kenny is more of a fan of Pope Francis than he was of Benedict XVI. But what’s also clear is that Mr Kenny is uninformed about what exactly the Church has done to deal with the cancer of clerical child sexual abuse.
At the Irish College, Mr Kenny praised Pope Francis for “setting out on a road to deal globally with the issues of child sexual abuse”. But, of course, it was Pope Benedict XVI who began the work in rooting abusive priests out of the priesthood, ensuring that they were reported to the civil authorities and instructing bishops’ conferences all over the world that they must deal decisively with priests accused of abuse. But, unfortunately, none of that fits the caricature of a nasty German Pope covering up child abuse.
Mr Kenny’s decision to re-open the embassy is undoubtedly based on the warm public perception of Pope Francis.
It’s a dangerous precedent for a country to base diplomatic relations on the personality of a Head of State. If Benedict XVI was still in office would the embassy be re-opening? I doubt it.
What happens if the Taoiseach decides that he no longer likes the President of France? Will that embassy be closed too until a president more to Mr Kenny’s liking is elected? It’s a very juvenile approach to diplomacy.
Many Catholics have expressed surprise that Mr Kenny was in Rome for the canonisations. The Vatican, as a state, has to deal with all sorts of governments that it has profound disagreements with. It would be wrong to interpret Mr Kenny’s presence as a sign of approval from the Holy See.
It’s hardly accidental that elections are less than a month away. Many Catholics feel utterly betrayed by Fine Gael under Enda Kenny and will be anxious to show this at the ballot box.
They’re unlikely to be swayed by Mr Kenny’s visit to Rome.