At a recent exchange about funding for a by-pass in Cork, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, compared the leader of the opposition to ‘one of those parish priests who preaches from the altar telling us to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself’.
The immediate reaction was one of surprise and confusion. What was this about? Was Leo just tired after a hectic schedule in Brussels? Was he just being smart-assed and playing to the gallery? Or was it that in the heat of the moment the truth came out? Did we glimpse the real Leo, instead of the carefully constructed media image of a leader happy and privileged to lead the very disparate communities that make up the new Ireland? Was this indicative of what he really thought of the Catholic Church and of priests?
I immediately tweeted ……..“Taoiseach not all of us padres are toxic. Most of us contribute to our local communities with generosity and compassion. This is shameful for a head of state to take a populist attack on a minority”, almost 2000 people liked that tweet.
The widespread condemnatory response to his comments was immediate and strong. The reason, I think, was that what he seemed to be saying was not just that the Catholic Church had a lot to answer for (as we do); or that we should apologise for our failings (which we have) but that behind the facade of condemnation, priests were living lives that contradicted what they were preaching. We know that’s the worst possible accusation against a priest. And we know that tarring every priest with the brush of child abuse is unfair and unconscionable, but this is what the Taoiseach speaking in the Dáil chamber seemed to be implying. Whatever he said, whatever he meant, whatever the provenance of his words, I think this was why the response was so instinctive.
In fairness, the Taoiseach apologised and it was important and necessary that he did so. But it raises other issues. Does he mean it? And can we believe him? When the Pope was here, even though some doubted Leo’s sincerity when he praised the contribution of the Catholic Church in different areas of Irish life, more now wonder whether it was all just PR-spin, hoovering up Catholic votes before the next election. So the question remains: is this what Leo actually thinks of us?
What Leo doesn’t seem to understand is that very few people in Ireland now have no difficulty with lambasting the Catholic Church for its real or perceived sins and failings (and bishops are included in that) but attacking the local priest is for many a step too far, not that priests are not criticised. We are, constantly, sometimes by our own parishioners. But for others, it’s a no-no.
While the Catholic Church has lost much or most of its authority in Ireland, and while criticism is devastating and on-going, at local parish level there is still huge respect for, appreciation of and solidarity with the local priest. And that’s why Leo’s flippant comment has been so devastating.
Over the last few decades, as priests watched television documentaries forensically dissecting the child abuse scandals and as we read the terrible detail of the Dublin Report, the Ferns Report, the Cloyne report and others, the nightmare question for priests was that as we walked to the altar to say Mass that weekend; after what they had read in the papers or seen on television, are my parishioners wondering whether I too am an abuser?
What the Taoiseach seemed to be implying in the Dáil was that this might well be true. What the Taoiseach’s remarks have achieved is that they will awaken and give a focus to ‘the sleeping giant’ of traditional Catholicism. There are, as we say, Catholics and Catholics in it. The reality is that the Marriage Equality Referendum and the Abortion Referendum were only carried because Catholics in their thousands voted for them. But the reality too is that most, roughly one-third who voted against them were Catholics – and they, along with many Catholics who voted for it, weren’t at all impressed, for example, by the cheering in Dublin Castle for an abortion regime in Ireland.
The difficult truth for Varadkar is that while the new inclusive Ireland where the marginalised are being brought into the centre, has the support of many Catholics, many see the current demonisation of Catholicism as an unfair price to pay for it. And they have votes too.
As Ivan Yates commented on his radio show (and he knows a thing or two about elections) those Catholics unhappy with the Taoiseach’s loose talk about their priests will be waiting for him in the long grass at the next general election. While many people admire Leo Varadkar for his ability and, not least for the new Ireland that’s being created under his watch, it was disappointing that in the Dáil chamber he descended to the mocking and stereo-typing of Catholic priests, who have more than most borne the heat of the day.
We deserved better.