The Villa Spada, the (soon to be former) Irish embassy to the Holy See
Ireland is to close its embassy to the Holy See. I suppose many of us saw this coming considering what happened during the summer and Enda Kenny's remarks in the Dail. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has said the decision is purely economic - since the embassy to the Holy See produces no economic benefits, then it is being liquidated: it has nothing to do with the row over the child abuse scandals. I'm afraid I find that hard to believe, to be honest. If they are closing down embassies because they are not economically beneficial then there are a few others that need to go, delegations which are not as important or as useful as that to the Holy See.
First of all there are the three embassies in Brussels - yes people, Ireland has three embassies, three ambassadors with three sets of staff in Brussels. One embassy to Belgium, one embassy to the EU and a third to NATO - we are not even a member of NATO but we still have a formal delegation to the organisation. If you want to talk about saving money, close down two of those embassies and get the one ambassador to cover all three: that would save more money than the closing of the embassy to the Holy See. There are also other embassies and representations that could have been cut back. After all, do we really need embassies in the countries of the EU? After all, are we not all one now, so why have embassies?
Some may ask, why bother having an embassy to the Church? Well actually a posting to the Holy See has always been considered important, and many countries send senior ambassadors to their delegations in the Vatican. Why? Because the Holy See is a diplomatic melting pot: if you know how to play the game it is one of the most useful fact-finding postings. The Holy See is neutral and a place where diplomats can meet and talk in a non-threatening atmosphere - they don't need to be watching their backs. For this reason, and many others, the Holy See enjoys real respect in diplomatic circles. It seems the present government, and indeed people in the Department of Foreign Affairs, do not understand that.
Historically, the embassy to the Holy See was the first embassy the new Irish State established, and with it our country declared itself a free, sovereign nation. So our representation there was important symbolically.
I am wondering what will happen now. I notice the government announce this in the aftermath of criticism for their bailing out junior bondholders of Anglo-Irish Bank. Just a few days ago €750 million was paid to these bondholders by the taxpayers of Ireland, most of these bondholders making a profit of about 70% on their initial investment. The country is in trouble; the IMF and EU have imposed measures which are crucifying our citizens financially, and the government pays out a profit to speculators. So, is this move on the embassy another distraction, just as Enda Kenny's speech in the Dail was the means to distracting criticism for his conflicting controversial utterances to the people of Roscommon and the Dail over the issue of Roscommon hospital? Is it possible that the government, when in trouble, starts to kick the Church in the hope the anti-Catholics will join in on the fun and forget the mess the government has created?
Watch this space. I sense another row brewing. You see I do not think the Vatican permits ambassadors to Italy double up as ambassadors to the Holy See - it is a mechanism designed to respect the Vatican's sovereignty (I don't think Italy allows the doubling up either). I can see the government complaining that they are not allowed double up and use it as another stick to beat the Church. Maybe not, but I could see something like that happen. People in Ireland have such a low opinion of the Church, they are not open to look at things objectively. The government might see another opportunity to win points, and they need those points; after all the Minister for Education wants the Catholic schools, and the way has to be cleared for the introduction of abortion - any chance of objections from the Church has to be neutralised. On that last point, the way the Church and bishops are at the moment, there would be little or no opposition to the introduction of abortion.
Another issue is that of constitutional reform - the government is, I think, looking to write a new constitution for Ireland, and so certain matters like freedom of religion may well be limited, again a silent Church with no credibility is required while that is going on.
Do I sound like a madman? I hope so. But at this stage anything is possible. I think in five years time, when we look back, we will see a very different Ireland. Perhaps the downgrading of the representation to the Holy See is a symbolic salvo. For these reasons I think the Holy See had better get its act together. I think we need a good nuncio, be it here in Dublin or doubled up with London. We need a nuncio who will be able to resist the charm of the Irish and be intent on sorting out the problems in the Church in Ireland. We need a man who can play the game well and be tough. We also need a new sort of bishop in the new appointments as they come up. We now need men who are able to deal with a hostile government while being on fire with zeal for a new evangelisation.
By the way, did you notice that the government have also announced that they are closing the embassy to Iran in the same breath as that of the Vatican? I think we get the message there, a not too subtle insult. That's where Ireland is now.
We must pray.