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
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times