Behind the Taoiseach’s Comments

Last Tuesday, after a funeral Mass in Ballina Cathedral, we buried Fr Michael Cawley in the grounds of Templeboy Church where, as a priest of Killala diocese, he last served officially as parish priest.

The evening before, crowds of people came to offer their respects to a hugely admired priest who, just a few weeks ago, had celebrated fifty years of priesthood and who had served in six different parishes in Killala (and Achonry), and worked on the missions in Brazil for 22 years before a decade-long struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

The following day, in an 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?

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. And 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 was: after what they’ve 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.

Inevitably Fianna Fáil will make hay on this. The gap between the two main parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – is so narrow that even a slight shift will ease FF into the lead and leave FG in the ‘confidence and supply’ role after the next election.

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 of the 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, as I do, 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.

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  1. Lee Cahill says:

    Thank you, Brendan….one of the (few??) prophets of our Church here in Ireland. Your addressing Taoiseach Varadkar’s comment did not reflect, for an instant, someone baying for blood. (And I fear that I am not alone in having had a reaction to Mr Varadkar that bordered on just that. Thank you for your balance in all this).
    I would hope that Mr Varadkar’s scurrilous slip will not be met by an avalanche of rationalising what he said. I think, on reflection himself, he could feel that such a “slip” (as Brendan implies “was it, or wasn’t it>”) would not merit the dignity of response.
    But, we can all certainly concur with Brendan’s compassionate defense of so many beleaguered parish priests. They know….as does every priest in the country….that every one of us is only a phone call away from being destroyed. That is part of the culture in which we live/minister. What a challenge we have to “Gospelise” that…..

  2. Eddie Finnegan1 says:

    Thanks Brendan for your appreciative words on Fr Michael Cawley. I remember Mick as a friendly lad in Maynooth around 1962-63 – a sound and solid man in every sense. A great friend of Brian Conlon of Killala and Eamon Bredin of Kilmore at the time and a classmate of two neighbouring bishops-to-be, Liam McDaid and Leo O’Reilly. I had lost touch with him over the decades but was sorry to hear last year of his struggle with Parkinson’s in recent years. May he rest in peace.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    I often remembered Michael Cawley as the best kind of classical Maynooth priest, deep, honest, rooted, unselfish, even though it’s been more than 50 years.

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