Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Turbulent Priests

Two unrelated events in Christendom took place yesterday.

First, the Vatican decided to get into the spirit of financial engineering and announced that is is creating a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for the absorption of Anglican dissidents into the Church; the SPVs will have legacy rights to continue certain aspects of Anglican practice, not least the Anglican Mass, but otherwise the new entrants will pledge allegiance to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Second, the Irish government found itself in a rare war of words with the Church of Ireland, in the form of harsh address by C of I Archbishop of Dublin John Neill who accused the department of education of having an implicit plan to wipe out distinctive Protestant education in Ireland.

The underlying issue is a system of special administrative grants for Protestant fee-paying schools which were cut last year. The Department says that they were unconstitutional. It's weird how grants that worked for 40 years suddenly turned out to be unconstitutional when the bureaucrats were looking for something to cut.

But the grants reflected an Irish solution to an Irish problem. When free public secondary education was brought in in the mid-1960s, it was in the context of a system where the Catholic Church owned most of the schools, the priests were ex officio members of the school boards, and Catechism was on the curriculum. These circumstances are largely intact, but apparently pass constitutional muster. The compromise was that where a C of I school could be sustained, it would get the administrative grants that otherwise only went to the schools within the free public system.

It was the fact that other fee paying schools don't get the special grant that was after 4 decades deemed objectionable. Note the absence of any demonstrated complaint about the system, let alone an attempt to test whether the courts would uphold a system with a clear purpose of protecting a minority religious group.

Anyway, back to the Pope and his wheeze. We can't resist mentioning this subtle dig at Benedict by Timothy Bradshaw in the Times (UK) --

When this powerful central Vatican machine reaches into local church life it can have a negative impact, as when the Pope closed down the Catholic Centre Party in 1930s Germany, a disastrous weakening of opposition to Hitler.

You'd think Papa Ratzi would know that history.

What his move and that of the Irish government have in common is that they are striking at the Anglican church when they think it's weak. The Pope thinks he can peel off the conservative wing and leave only a liberal Rowanesque rump, although the Vatican may not have thought through what happens when already disaffected but persisting Catholics find an influx of de facto evangelicals in their churches. That more relaxed Anglican congregation will still be down the road.

While the Irish government is gambling that the only students seriously affected are those in rural areas where the lack of density makes sustaining a specialized C of I school difficult. Sure can't they sit in the local secondary and just read a book during any religious content? As a cynical calculation, it probably has merit. Rural areas seem more up in arms about a proposed tightening of drink-driving laws than the loss of a few more C of I schools.

But it's a telling commentary on the current self-satisfied definition of Irishness (as reflected in the Angelus) that there's less space for a traditional Irish religious institution to function. It's pointless to note the irony of the country's permanent party of government, Fianna Fáil, gathering last Sunday to celebrate the 1791 founding of the United Irishmen, a movement characterized by a fellowship of Catholic and Protestant Irish nationalists, even as the government undermined the compact of that relationship. For the Vatican and the Irish establishment, it's all in the name of modernity.

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