01 June 2015

Why the Vatican threw Ireland under the bus.

What just happened? The Vatican's response to last month's events in Dublin seems tone deaf, a slap in the face from an institution that has lost touch with reality. But it may be a move in a much bigger game.

Everyone who watched the results coming in Ireland's marriage equality referendum must have noticed: this was not just a vote. This was, as Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin admitted, a social revolution. It wasn't just a majority; it was a landslide. Rural and urban, young and old, across all classes, people voted in favour. Ironically, given the No campaign's focus on family values - 'Mothers and Fathers matter' - it was the families that made the difference. The Mums and Dads of Ireland joined their children in voting for equality; for their gay sons and daughters, family members, friends and colleagues. This was the voice of middle Ireland. And the message was clear, emphatic and proud: Yes.

For some commentators, it seemed like a rejection of the Church. But that misses the tone - of positivity, of enthusiasm. The Church was not being rejected, simply bypassed. In the previous decade, the Irish public endured a sequence of grim revelations about the Church's past failures. Unlike the financial crisis, they never had a chance to express their feelings at the ballot box - until now.

When the Ryan report described the culture of endemic brutality of the Church's former residential schools, Archbishop Martin accepted there would be a price to pay for its failures: 'The church will have to pay that price in terms of its credibility'.

On 23 May, the invoice arrived in the post.

Reality check

There are of course some in the church who recognize the cliff it had just gone over. It was down to Archbishop Martin, once again, to put it plainly: the church needed a 'reality check'. Despite having most young people for 12 years in the educational system, he admitted, the church had failed to get its message across. Even here, the reality - that young people had rejected the message - was too painful to admit.

But a different kind of reality check came a few days later, from higher up in the hierarchy. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, described as the Vatican equivalent of prime minister, called the Irish vote a 'defeat for humanity'.

It was a breathtakingly arrogant comment, especially in view of the outpouring of positive sentiment in Dublin when the result of the vote was announced: here was a sign of the nation's maturity, a message to the world of Irish decency and toleration.

And here, now, was the Vatican, delivering an astonishing dismissal. A slap in the face; a public put-down.

Perhaps a score was being settled. In 2011 Taoiseach Enda Kenny described the 'dysfunction, disconnection, elitism' and 'narcissism' of the Vatican culture. Was this payback? If so, it suggested that nothing had changed. Perhaps this is what it seems - a dramatic own goal.

But it's just as likely a move in a different, wider game: what chess players call a pawn sacrifice.

The great game

In the global picture, Ireland is still small potatoes. There are one and a quarter billion Catholics on the planet. Ireland's adherents amount to less than a third of one percent of that total. Not only that: they're the wrong kind of Catholics.

In the past century, there has been a huge demographic shift in our world. Religion has gone south.

In the developing world, a vast movement of populations is taking place. Young people move to the cities in search of work, just as their predecessors did in the Roman Empire. Like them, they go from living in traditional communities, held together by close kinship networks, to being a face in the crowd, alone in an uncaring multitude. And like them, they find support in religion.

Yong people in the global South - in Africa, Asia and Latin America - can't get enough religion. Unlike the fading faithful of the North, the followers of the big international religions are booming. A century ago, Europe was home to two out of three of the world's Catholics. Today, it's one in four.

The wrong kind of faith

On a head count, developed countries still represent a sizable proportion of the faithful. But measured by what the experts call religiosity - how important their religion is to them - they're not.

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