Ireland has no need for an embassy in the Vatican

Many convinced Catholics believe it would be appropriate now for the Vatican to pare back the pomp and pretence, as a signal of the humility it nowadays protests. By Vincent Browne.

An Italian monsignor visited a drapery store in Rome in early March 1923 and ordered warm underwear, most likely long johns and woolly vests.

This suspicious event became known to the Italian press, which correctly deduced the monsignor was about to go to Ireland as an envoy from Pope Pius XI – suspicious because it was unusual, even for monsignors, to purchase long johns and woolly vests in early March in drapery shops in Rome just as the glorious Roman summer was to arrive.

The monsignor was Salvatore Luzio and his arrival in Ireland on 19 March 1923, was greeted by the then government and by the Irish Catholic hierarchy with dismay. This was because the Cumann na nGaedheal government regarded his arrival as menacing, the hierarchy regarded his arrival as meddlesome and because the monsignor did not bother making contact with the government or the hierarchy for several weeks after his arrival, choosing first to meet the leaders of the Anti-Treatyites at a secret location.

The point of his mission was peace, to end the Civil War that was causing such slaughter including the serial executions of prisoners without trial. But just at that time, the government side in the Civil War was on the point of defeating the insurgents, which made the papal intervention very much unwelcome. The Irish bishops were apprehensive that the envoy’s arrival would presage far greater oversight of their doings by Rome, which they believed would be unhelpful.

The papal peace envoy’s visit was a disaster and he was recalled, which seemed to please everyone, except the clerics in the Irish College in Rome, who had warm feelings for Éamon de Valera and who had cajoled the Vatican to send the envoy. Salvatore Luzio said at the time he was “caciato in un ginepraio” (thrown into a quagmire).

There was no great enthusiasm in the early years of the Free State for diplomatic relations with the Vatican, although there were regular protestations of fidelity – WT Cosgrave on a visit to the pope in the summer of 1923 proclaimed: “Humbly prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, we, your Irish children, offer our loyal devotion and deep affection.”

Priority was given to establishing diplomatic missions in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Washington and only later on – in the late 1920s – was there a decision to establish, if possible, diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

The arguments in favour of doing so were: Rome had prestige which neither Berlin nor Paris enjoyed; diplomatic relations with the Vatican would enhance the legitimacy of the Free State; the presence of a papal nuncio in Dublin would give the Irish government influence over the appointment of bishops; and an Irish envoy at the Vatican would counteract the pro-Republican influence of the Irish College in Rome. But there were problems.

First, the protocols of diplomacy had to acknowledge the head of state in Ireland at the time was not the president of the Executive Council (the taoiseach in our present arrangements) but the British monarch, at the time, King George V – this was merely embarrassing, however, for the British were willing and later did facilitate the establishment of relations. Another problem was the Irish bishops were not at all keen on the idea because they feared the presence of a papal nuncio here would curtail their independence.

This meant that the negotiations with the Vatican on the establishment of diplomatic representation had to be done behind the backs of the Irish bishops, and it also meant that there was a long delay between the appointment of an Irish envoy to the Vatican and the appointment of a papal nuncio to Dublin.

The arguments now in favour of a separate representation at the Vatican are very much weaker than they were in 1929. There is no special prestige now in having diplomatic representations in Rome; whether we have a permanent mission at the Vatican makes no difference to the legitimacy of the Irish State; influencing the appointment of bishops here is no longer of any concern for it hardly matters who are appointed bishops; and the Irish College in Rome is hardly a powerhouse any more. Neither would it be acceptable, incidentally, for any Irish political leader to speak about being “humbly prostrate at the feet of your Holiness”, and while there is among many devotion and affection for the papacy, there is not much “loyal devotion”.

There is also, I suspect, a scepticism among many convinced Catholics that it is no longer appropriate for the Vatican to be masquerading as a “state”, with accompanying trappings, including a huge diplomatic corps. Many of them believe it would be appropriate now for the Vatican to pare back the pomp and pretence, as a signal of the humility it nowadays protests. All the more so following the revelations of its central role in the concealment of the sexual abuse of children around the world, an abuse made all the easier by the bogus authority and stature the priests of the church conveyed through that pomp and pretence.

(I have drawn much in this column from Dermot Keogh’s Ireland and the Vatican: the Politics and Diplomacy of Church-State Relations 1922-1960, Cork University Press, 1995.)


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