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
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit