Secular Protests of the Papal Visit to Ireland

The closer we get to the visit by Pope Francis to Ireland and specifically to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin the greater seems the criticism, even distrust and outright hostility, of the Church and even the pope.

No doubt, much of it is the accumulated effect of the dramatic loss of Faith by a large a portion of the Irish population—reflected by declining Church attendance, that contrasts with the enthusiastic reception given to Pope John Paul II on his visit in 1979. The loss is attributable to many things—economic prosperity, media atmosphere, and academic secularism (first on the university level but increasingly on all levels despite nominal Church management of most elementary schools).

However, what especially ignited the decline, which was already well under way, were various scandals connected with Church figures, ranging from bishops down through priests and religious. These scandals ranged from private sexual affairs, sexual abuse of young people and even children, cruelty in the treatment of children in schools and orphanages, to maltreatment of girls and young women who had become pregnant out of wedlock.

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Exposés of these appeared in the late 1980s, the 1990s, and into this century, and culminated in both Church-managed and public inquiries. The guilty parties reflected an admittedly small proportion of clergy and religious, and a large proportion of cases were historic—that is, having happened decades before. This scarcely diminished the shame it brought to the Church and certainly provided a reinforcement for the increasing disinterest in religion on the part of many.

Probably the defining indications of the weakened position of the Church in Ireland were two constitutional referenda, for which the electorate voted overwhelmingly in favor, that approved questions quite contrary to Catholic moral positions. In 2015, approval was given to same-sex “marriage” and this year an existing constitutional amendment against abortion was repealed enabling the Irish legislature to enact laws allowing termination of pregnancy.

It had been thought that the Papal visit might prompt a strong manifestation of a continued commitment to the Faith by great numbers of Irish, even among many who had voted affirmatively in the recent referenda. However, signs appeared very early this year that both the Meeting of Families and the Papal visit were to be subjected to controversy.

A leading figure provoking this has been the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, who served from 1997 to 2011. Subsequently, she did graduate study on Canon Law in Rome. Some commentators suggested she might be the first woman to be named as a cardinal by the seemingly liberal and innovative Pope Francis. However, she was not included as a participant in a Vatican conference marking International Women’s Day earlier this year, about which she complained without satisfaction.

Some suspect McAleese’s exclusion was a consequence of her endorsement of the same-sex referendum in Ireland in 2015. (She also supported the more recent measure facilitating abortion.) Besides championing modification of the Church position on homosexuality, she has also advocated the ordination of women and criticized the Church practice of infant Baptism, arguing it should be reserved until the age of reason.

She again felt aggrieved that her request for a meeting with Pope Francis prior to his coming to Ireland was not acknowledged and more recently complained about a 2002 suggestion made to her by then papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, that the Church and the Irish government agree on the destruction of Church documentation regarding clerical sexual abuse.

Additionally, She shared the disquiet of LGBT groups that their form of family would not be included among those gathering at the forthcoming World Meeting of Families.

Accordingly, she will not attend the meeting, nor go to any of the functions at which the pope will appear, and thinks the pope should replace his scheduled visit to the celebrated Marian Shrine at Knock, County Mayo, with a lengthier visit with victims of clerical sex abuse.

Another critic of Pope Francis is Ian Elliot, who, from 2007 to 2013, was the chief executive of the Irish Catholic Church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children, which provided a definitive statement on the extent of clerical abuse and with which the Irish hierarchy cooperated. More recently he found shortcomings in some episcopal cooperation, and has concluded that Pope Francis’s record on child protection “has been a dismal failure.”

His work on clerical abuse in Latin America, Australia, and with the Church of England, have made him doubt “that bishops, the clerical hierarchies, are capable of exercising the sort of judgment that is needed in order to have confidence that the vulnerable will be protected.” His skepticism about bishops and hierarchies might be partly related to his own Presbyterian beliefs which might have helped prompt his conclusion, five years after he led an inquiry in Ireland, that the problem was not being managed effectively anywhere by the Church. The reason, according to him, was deference to the hierarchy from within.

He concluded, “Canon law is badly in need of reform. It’s archaic, it’s ineffective. The whole canonical disciplinary system is ineffective and it needs to be scrapped. There needs to be mandatory reporting,” and, “There needs to be independent scrutiny, independent monitoring. If it’s not going to be done by the state—a body has to be created.”

Another critical commentator on the papal visit is Colm O’Gorman, the Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, who himself was a victim of clerical sexual abuse. His own first instinct was to be out of Ireland when the pope would come, because he would “find it particularly galling to be here.” He asserted that “no pope, including this pope, has ever acknowledged the simple proven fact that the Vatican orchestrated and facilitated the cover-up of the rape and abuse of hundreds of thousands of children at global level.” As a protest, he has promoted a gathering of victims of clerical abuse in the Garden of Remembrance in the heart of Dublin simultaneous with the Mass to be celebrated by the pope at Phoenix Park on Sunday, April 26.

O’Gorman’s organization has been the recipient of a considerable amount of financial support from the George Soros organization, Open Society Foundations, and has supported the cause of same-sex “marriage” and abortion in Ireland. The prevailing international view of Amnesty International has been as an opponent of totalitarian regimes, genocide and war crimes, rather than combatting clerical abuse or advocating same-sex “marriage” and abortion.

The closer it gets to the actual date of the papal visit, Irish radio and television seem to emphasize the transportation and logistical difficulties many, especially older people—the age category very likely to be attracted to the Papal Mass at Phoenix Park—will have. Naturally, there has also been discussion of the public cost of the event, even though at least half is being born by the Irish Catholic Church and its special collections, and the public portion is comparable to, if not less than, that incurred upon the visits to Ireland by President Obama and Queen Elizabeth.

The media and the establishment have been doing their best to dampen popular support for the reception of the pope and they have been helped by the Church’s own failings. But, taking the view of an historian, the Church has endured its own scandals as well as external, often violent, assaults. The recovery of the institutional Church has happened in the past, and Irish have often played a significant role in such. This may well happen again. What is ultimately most important is that the Faith will prevail.


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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