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For Irish and U.S. Catholics, how things change Add to ...

There is no constituency anywhere that loves St. Patrick’s Day more than the Irish Catholic diaspora in the United States, especially in New York and Boston. And the number of presidents and lesser dignitaries who frequently pay homage to the mother turf and strain all credibility with efforts to establish their own ancestral Hibernian pedigree is a mighty stream. The connections that exist between the old republic and the new republic – political and social – are considerable, but there is one area where the history and customs part company: religion. In particular, the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to the state.

In the United States, the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state has dogmatic status (you don’t trifle with this tenet). In Eire, the special role of Catholicism as the majority faith has ensured its privileged position as the nation’s conscience.

But how things have changed.

For some time, Ireland has been roiled by the agony and fury around the clerical sex-abuse scandals and their cover-up. Political careers have been brought to an abrupt end, Episcopal leadership has been rejigged and the national prestige of the church has been diminished, perhaps irrevocably. Yet, things are happening that would stir St. Patrick’s remains.

Following last year’s release of the Cloyne report, which castigated the Diocese of Cloyne for its egregious failure in implementing nationally approved protocols for dealing with abuse and securing the protection of the vulnerable, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny blasted the Vatican for its “elitism, narcissism and dysfunction.” National polls supported Mr. Kenny’s eloquent volley and it didn’t hurt that he spoke as a practising Catholic and not just as a prime minister. Not surprisingly, the Vatican recalled its ambassador for discussions.

Then, deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore announced that Ireland would close its embassy to the Holy See, ostensibly for economic reasons. Could it get any bleaker? It did. The ruling coalition’s Labour Party introduced a motion that would have required officials of the Department of Education to be screened to determine whether they are “Catholics first and Irish second.” Ireland’s special relationship between church and state is now in tatters.

But out of this season of church-bashing has emerged an unexpected resistance – not from the devout, who feel more besieged and battered than bold and belligerent, but from the chattering classes, the church’s opposition, who have found the anti-clericalism extreme, distasteful and unfair. The Labour motion has been withdrawn and the public push for reopening the embassy has gathered momentum.

On this side of the Atlantic, religion has entered the political arena with a vengeance. A Democratic President introduced legislation around access to contraception that has whipped up the Catholic hierarchy in a way rarely seen, and Republican presidential candidates argue for God’s partisanship in a manner that disturbs the godly and godless equally. Although it would be close to impossible to find Irish Catholic politicians who could approximate the pugilistic piety exhibited by Catholic Republicans Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, it is more revealing to note that there would be no national stomach for it among Catholics themselves, lay or clerical.

There was a time when St. Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations reflected the fierce tribal pride Catholic immigrants had in their ancestry; it was a way of showing to a skeptical or hostile Protestant America that being Catholic did not compromise your patriotism. The church was the principal agency enabling the culture and faith to cohabit and still retains a place of prominence.

But the American landscape is different now. And so is America’s Catholic landscape. Although there is some taste for a combative Catholicism with a smiling face, the diversity of view within the U.S. church demonstrates a theological maturity and awareness that will not be extirpated by the excessive zeal of the new devout. That is what the Irish can now teach the diaspora this St. Patrick’s Day, and it is a good thing, more enduring than the triumphalism of the past, more humble in keeping with its mission, more firm in its grasp of the essentials.

And you don’t need green beer to make it more palatable. Although it helps.

Michael W. Higgins is an author and vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He writes the monthly column “Letter from America” for The Irish Catholic newspaper in Dublin.

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