The appointment of Charles Brown – a non-diplomat that served until now in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – as new Papal nuncio in Ireland has a double meaning. First, it reflects the seriousness of Rome’s intent to put relations between itself and Ireland on an altogether new footing. But, on the other hand, it can be seen as a sort of decline of Vatican diplomacy. The Vatican Secretariat of State did not find anyone within its corp that responded to the distinctive features that the new nuncio in Ireland was supposed to have: a strong doctrine to help the Church of Ireland to find its identity again, a good knowledge of canonical procedures to handle the pedophilia scandal, and a high-level profile to respond to the decision of Irish government to close the Embassy to the Holy See in Rome.
The decision by Ireland government to close of the Irish embassy to the Holy See in Rome brings to life a number of Vatican nightmares. It was made for “economic reasons”, which means that keeping a diplomatic mission at the papal court is supposed to be expensive (implicitly, uselessly expensive).
In a period of financial turmoil, economy might be a perfect reason, or excuse, for other governments to take similar steps. It already happened in 1867, when the United States wanted to retaliate for Pius IX’s alleged support to the Confederates, and the Union government simply cut off funds for the then Vatican legation (there wasn’t yet an embassy). Is there the risk of a potential domino effect?.
Actually, the government of Ireland did not break the diplomatic relationships with the Holy See. Simply, it decided not to have a residential ambassador. There are two types of Holy See ambassadors: those who have their own embassies in Rome and those who work out of the embassies in any other country, with the exception of Italy. The Holy See, in fact, has never agreed to accredit an ambassador who is already accredited with the Italian state. Without exception.
In fact, ever since the 1929 concordat, the Vatican – Paddy Agnew wrote – «has mounted a zealous guard on the independence of its sovereign city-state in the heart of Rome. However, the point about the dual missions in Rome (there 77 countries that have two ambassadors there) is that they owe their existence to the Holy See’s desire to separate itself from the Italian state. The question goes back to first World War days, when there was only one national embassy in Rome. When both Austria and Germany – then at war with Italy – withdrew their diplomatic representation, the Holy See found itself without German or Austrian interlocutors. The Holy See objected to ambassadors being withdrawn because, while Italy might have been at war with Austria and Germany, the Holy See was not».
The closure of the Irish embassy to the Holy See has been seen in the context of a deterioration in relations between Rome and Dublin since the publication of the Murphy Report in November, 2009. The third of four statutory reports on the abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Ireland, it followed an inquiry into the handly of clerical child sex abuse allegations in the Dublin diocese.
In July 13th last the Cloyne report was published. It accused the Vatican, through its opposition to the Irish bishops’ 1996 guidelines on handling clerical child sex abuse, of giving comfort to dissenters in the church who did not want to implement them. In a secret 1997 letter to the Irish bishops, Rome described the 1996 rules as «merely a study document» and not official. Archbishop Leanza – then Papal nuncio – was summoned to meet Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore. He was told by Gilmore that Vatican intervention in Irish affairs was «totally inappropriate, unjustified and unacceptable even within the context of the arrangements of the church itself ». The effect – he said – was that the «the abuse of children in this country was not reported to the authorities». He asked for an explanation.
That same day, July 14th last, Taoiseach Enda Kenny described the Vatican’s approach to clerical abuse inquiries in Ireland as «absolutely disgraceful». Six days later, on July 20th, he delivered his extraordinary address to the Dáil on Cloyne. He said that the report had «brought the Government, Irish Catholics and the Vatican to an unprecedented juncture». And then he exposed «an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago». The report – he affirmed – excavated «the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . the narcissism . . . that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day». Far from «listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal . . . the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer». Five days later Archbishop Leanza was recalled to Rome. He has since been posted to the Czech Republic.
On September 3rd the Vatican issued a 25-page response to the Cloyne report and comments by the Tánaiste and Taoiseach, rejecting claims it had interfered in Irish affairs or inquiries. That response was described by the Tánaiste as «highly technical, highly legalistic, very much dancing on the head of a pin».
Actually, the clergy abuse seems just to be a casus belli in order to close the embassy. One of the Wikileaks dispatches, indeed, proved that in diplomatic environment many noticed the tension between Ireland and Holy See. And Massimo Franco – an Italian commentator, that diagnosed the “implosions” of Benedict’s Vatican in the book C’era una volta un Vaticano – wrote that «”Catholic” Ireland could prove to be the pathfinder of a worrying development for the Vatican, whose diplomatic and moral weight is openly and badly challenged. If it doesn’t move on rapidly, the echo of the scandals combined with the effects of the financial crisis could weaken its voice and international presence. And the closure of the Irish embassy could turn to be just a bitter appetiser: the first in a series».
This is exactly the reason why the Holy See took its time to appoint the new Papal nuncio in Ireland. Charles Brown is not a usual Vatican diplomat but comes, with a background at the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), most uncommon for a papal nuncio. At the CDF since 1994 – where he worked for 11 years with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – Brown is not only familiar with the Pope’s thinking but also with the church’s response to the issue of clerical child sexual abuse. As an Irish American he will have an intuitive understanding of the Catholic people of this State and of this island. As a man who has served at the CDF for 17 years he will be deeply familiar with the issue that has plagued the Irish Catholic Church for almost two decades. He will need to be skillful, since reports into six Catholics dioceses by the Chuch’s child protection watchdog are going to be published.
His duty will be to stop the decline of Catholicism in Ireland. In the 1970s, more than 90% of Irish Catholics said they went to Mass once a week. Now the number is something about 44%. In addition, “a la carte” Catholicism took hold and affected political life. Young Catholics began to excuse themselves from certain church teachings, such as the ban on premarital sex. Married couples practiced birth control. The sale of condoms was legalized in 1979, despite church opposition. In 1995, a referendum amended the constitution to give couples the right to divorce. A similar measure in 1986 had been roundly defeated.
This scenario is similar in several European countries. Malta has recently a law that allow divorce, and the taboo of a law on abortion fell also in the Catholic Portugal. At the same time, Vatican diplomacy seemed to have lost its weight, due to a strong campaigning against the “diplomatic status” of the Holy See and to the spread of news about clergy scandals.
Irish case is exemplar: looking at it, one can find the roots of what is going on all over Europe. For three centuries the Catholic Church has been on the defensive against secularism – even if it on the other hand secularizing trends have also meant a liberation of the Church from forms of wordliness, as the Pope recently put it. The assault began in France in the 1700s and helped to provoke the revolution of 1789, which stripped the powerful French Catholic hierarchy of its control of education, political clout and landed wealth.
Napoleon I was an avid secularist, who first invaded the papal states in Italy in 1798, releasing the Jews from their ghettos there. This began the modern erosion of the worldly power of the papacy, which continued with the rise of Italian nationalism in the 1800s. Stripped of its landed wealth – at one time about one third of Italy – the papacy was eventually confined to the Vatican palace in Rome by the Lateran Treaty of 1929.
At first repelled in independent Ireland by the strongly pro-Catholic leaders of Ireland’s revolution, secularism nevertheless advanced after 1922 with Ireland’s need to keep pace with cultural and educational developments in the west generally. Despite the tenacity of churchmen like Dublin Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, secularism advanced steadily, with the secularisation of the educational curriculum and industrialisation of Ireland from the 1960s – Benedict XVI himself outlined this scenario in his letter to the Catholic Church of Ireland.
The clerical abuse scandals since 1992 have since greatly reduced the prestige of the institutional Catholic Church. By 1997 Bishop Thomas Flynn had observed that «Ireland is becoming a secular country». As younger generations are also generally less observant, this decline seems set to continue over the next two decades – especially as recruitment to the Catholic clergy continues to be too low to prevent the average age of clergy rising well above 60.
Together with the decline of the faith, goes the decline of diplomatic impact of Holy See. The Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy – the Vatican diplomatic school – seems unable to license high-profile diplomats. And these latter are really needed. While the watchword may be discretion, the Holy See is ready to make its voice heard and even go to the mat when there are serious moral issues at stake. Such was the case in 1994 with the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The conference became a battle of different worldviews, and the Vatican was not afraid to play hardball in such a pivotal showdown.
Vatican diplomacy stretches way back to its embryonic conception around the 4th Century with the establishment of the first pontifical representatives at the level of the Ecumenical Council, through the adoption of diplomacy as a means of strengthening church and inter-state relations within the mid 16th century, the creation of the first Vatican Diplomatic Academy in 1703, to the decline of Vatican diplomacy following the church’s lost of influence on world politics as a result of state absolutism and anti-Christian philosophies like the French Revolution, which considerably diminished the church’s authority at the international scene.
Other historical landmarks that had an influence on Vatican Diplomacy were the disappearance of the Pontifical States in 1870, the recognition of the prowess of the Papacy in 1915 during the Congress of Vienna and the creation of the Council of the Vatican state in 1929 to resolve the Roman question; a question which focused on a state as an entity with a territory and a government.
The creation of the Vatican State paved the way for the church not to depend on Italian diplomacy and enabled the Pope to carry out his mission as the successor of Peter in all autonomy. Now, after the climax of John Paul II – that will go down in history as one of the greatest concordant popes, having signed a record 36 bilateral accords with 36 states between 1979 and 2004 -, (while with Joseph Ratzinger as pope, four other countries have decided to establish residency in Rome for their ambassadors to the Vatican: Australia, Cameroon, East Timor, and Benin) – are there diplomatic risks for Vatican diplomacy?