What should the Taoiseach say to the Pope?

Enda Kenny must acknowledge the damage done by the Catholic Church to Ireland

Ireland's very own bronze-haired, twinkly-eyed Taoiseach Enda Kenny is today meeting Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. As to what should be on his lips is anyone's guess. One hopes that he is mindful of our history, and that his smile does not take precedence over the articulation of anger felt by our - although economically burdened - still optimistic people and that he makes the Catholic Church acknowledge the irrevocable damage inflicted by them and their institution head-on, face to face.

"A society of albanised peasants," was the damning depiction of 1960s Ireland declared by the late writer, Sean O'Faolain. Run, as he said we were then, by a completely obscurantist, repressive, regressive and uncultivated church, it was theocracy that managed the holy land of Ireland. And it was here, as in other places, that politics and religion have had an incestuous relationship. Ireland is a wicked example of what can go wrong.

While most of the west in the 19th century was industrialised and urbanised, Ireland remained an impoverished Catholic society, shackled with arrested development, where the men of the holy cloth had the last word not only in sermon, but on all sorts of policy, public and social. The Catholic Church was the alpha and the omega. There was deep attachment to land and faith, tradition and ritual. The modernisation of Ireland, however, inevitably would be in opposition to religion. Television, the sexual revolution and globalisation, all contributed fiercely. It was the sex scandals, though, that would be the killer element in the implosion of the church.

The church made expensive effort to hide the rape and torture of children from the relevent authorities, even forcing child victims to put their names to secrecy oaths that prevented them from testifying. A cocktail of fear and naivete enabled the silence to endure. Starting in the 1990s, a series of criminal cases and Irish government inquiries established that hundreds of holy men had acted in the most unholy fashion. In many cases, these men were shifted to other parishes to avoid embarrassment and scandal, assisted by those at a more senior level - an institutional conspiracy. 

Kenny's host, Pope Benedict XVI or Joseph Ratzinger as he was, is closely associated with this obstruction of justice. When promoted to cardinal, he was singularly responsible for the direction of "the congregation for the doctrine of the faith". In 2001, Pope John Paul II assigned Ratzinger's department to manage the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. Ratzinger promptly penned a letter which he sent swiftly to every bishop, in which he promoted secrecy around inquiries into sexual misconduct. 

Enda Kenny was accurate last year when he said that there was dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism dominating the culture of the Vatican to this day, and that the rape and torture of Irish children was downplayed or managed to uphold, instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. All is now under question as its irrelevance gains momentum. A reiteration of this personally to Pope Benedict would be diligent.

He should also address the position of Cardinal Sean Brady, disgraced leader of the Irish Catholic Church, and his information about Father Brendan Smyth. Kenny should demand answers and justice on behalf of the victims who are of his electorate, whom he represents. This is an opportunity for him to gain some public clout, but, also too, an opportunity to show he has some steel behind his words. We can only hope that he acts diligently and addresses these issues, instead of aquiescing to this negligent institution.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Credit: Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Clinton and Trump: do presidential debates really matter?

The ability of the candiates to perform in front of the cameras is unlikely to impact the final result.

The upcoming televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated for many years. No doubt there are various surprises in store – this has been, after all, the most surprising of campaigns.

People will be particularly fascinated to see if Trump dials down his bombastic rhetoric and perhaps even adds some substance to the vague policy pronouncements he has made so far. To a lesser extent, many will also be interested in whether Clinton can add the necessary zest to what some consider her lacklustre style, and whether she can prove she’s made a sterling recovery from her recent bout with pneumonia.

It’s possible that some voters may in fact change their minds based on what they see in the two’s only on-camera encounters. And yet, barring a true disaster or devastating triumph, it’s unlikely that anything the candidates say or do will make much difference to the overall result.

This might not seem all that surprising for these two candidates in particular. Leaving aside how long they’ve both been in public life, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have put Clinton and Trump under incredible scrutiny ever since they announced their respective candidacies – and their every sentence and gesture has already been analysed in the greatest detail.

Trump in particular has received more free publicity from the networks and Twitter than even he could afford, and it’s highly unlikely that he will say anything that the US public hasn’t heard before. Similarly, voters’ impressions of Clinton are apparently so deeply entrenched that she probably won’t change many people’s minds.

Yet there are also broader reasons why presidential TV debates are less important than we might imagine.

Looking the part

Even before the media environment became as saturated as it is today, debates were rarely, if ever, decisive in presidential elections. The exception was possibly the very first TV debate in 1960, which pitted the then vice-president, Richard Nixon, against John F. Kennedy.

At the time, the election was so close that the young, relatively inexperienced but highly telegenic Kennedy was able to reap the benefits of putting his case directly to viewers. He was the underdog; a relative unknown in comparison to Nixon and so had more to gain from such national exposure. Nixon, as the establishment figure, had a lot to lose.

In the end, Kennedy’s narrow victory may well have been because of his debate performances. But his success also demonstrated another important feature of television debates: that viewers take more notice of what they see than what they hear.

Notoriously, television viewers responded very favourably to Kennedy’s film-star good looks, but were turned off by Nixon, who refused to wear make-up and looked sweaty and uncomfortable under the studio lights. In contrast, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had come out on top. It seems that viewers saw Kennedy as more “presidential” than Nixon, especially given his calmness under pressure. Kennedy did work hard to exploit some of Nixon’s weaknesses on policy, but in the end, that turned out not to be the point.

Kennedy’s success was one of the reasons that neither of his two successors, Lyndon B. Johnson and then a resurgent Nixon, participated in any such events when they were running for the presidency. Although some debates were held in the primaries, there were no face-to-face contests between presidential candidates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

The next debates were held in 1976, another tight campaign. These yielded a notorious moment in the second encounter between Gerald R Ford and Jimmy Carter, when the incumbent Ford appeared to throw the election away with a poorly judged remark declaring that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. As myth has it, this gaffe stalled Ford’s polling surge; he ultimately lost the election.

Yet even this was not decisive. Although the comment did the president no favours, it’s highly debatable whether it in fact had an impact on the overall result; Ford actually closed the polling gap with Carter between the debates and the general election. People’s reactions to the debate had less to do with the substance of his remark and much more with the media’s constant replay and analysis of that moment, which continues to mar Ford’s reputation to this day.

Selective memory

This pattern has continued in the election cycles that have followed, as slips and awkward moments rather than substance provide the media with dominant themes. Many people recall vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s cack-handed attempt to compare himself to Kennedy in 1988, or George Bush senior’s ill-judged glance at his watch when listening to a question in 1992; few probably remember much about what policies they discussed, or whether, if they won, they carried them out.

If anything, the shortcomings of the TV debate format have become more pronounced in the current cycle. Although neither of the main candidates in this year’s election wants for national exposure, the primary debates have tended to favour the underdog and those who claim to be outsiders.

On the Republican side, Trump’s various moderate competitors were one by one hobbled and engulfed; Clinton, for her part, spent months slugging it out with her remarkably successful left-wing rival Bernie Sanders, never quite landing a televised knockout punch and ultimately only defeating him properly after six months of primaries.

While credible policy proposals seem to matter less than ever, things that would have once been considered catastrophic gaffes have become par for the course. Indeed, one could argue that Trump’s success so far is because he has built his campaign on half-truths and outright lies without care for the consequences.

So despite all the anticipation, this year’s debates probably won’t tell us very much about what will happen after the president takes office next January; the analysis will almost certainly focus less on what the candidates have to say and more on how they say it. Voters will no doubt tune in in great, possibly record-breaking numbers, but they’ll come away with precious little sense of what’s in store for their country.

Equally, the spectacles we’re about to witness might be pyrotechnic enough, but they’re unlikely to decide the result in November. And in the unlikely event that they do, it won’t be for the right reasons.

Andrew Priest is a lecturer in Modern US History at the University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.