TERRY PRONE: Spreading the word: The modest cardinal and his powerful blog

I WOULDN’T want to put the Pope and Pierce Brosnan in the same boat, but whenever I hear the radio ad for that Sky bundle thing, it rings a papal bell for me.

The ad has Pierce working very hard to be an ordinary and humble lad from Meath who somehow got lucky/famous/rich, but who — fair dues to him — really hasn’t changed that much. The comic point of the ad being that nobody’s paying a blind bit of attention to Brosnan’s don’t-mind-me-I’m-really-one-of-you self-deprecation.

Modesty seems to play better if you’re a highly-placed churchman than if you’re a film star. You will remember that when Pope Francis came through as the new pontiff, world media fell over themselves about his humility. He travelled back to his hotel by bus, they told us. Imagine. And paid his bill in the hotel all by himself. The way commentators went on about it, you’d think travelling by bus qualified the traveller for beatification and paying one’s own bill was the ultimate indication of how the new head of the Church was down to earth and authentic and not given to notions about himself. No Pierce Brosnan irony at all.

It’s a bit like that with Cardinal Seán O’Malley in Boston. Those close to him say he likes to be called Cardinal Seán, fada and all. This is clearly meant to underline his accessible ordinariness, but it’s a bit puzzling. Cardinal Seán. As opposed to what? He’s hardly going to sign his blog “His Eminence, Cardinal Seán O’Malley”, and, anyway, being invited to address someone as Cardinal Seán does kind of leave you in no doubt as to his eminence. Which is groovy. I’m cool with mannered obeisance. I call ministers “minister”, bishops “bishop”, and gardaí who flag me down with sirens shrieking and blue lights flashing “officer”. (Hell, I’d call them “superintendent” if I thought it’d prevent a point or two from going on my licence, but I don’t think that would work.) Mannered obeisance joined at the lip to casual intimacy doesn’t work for me, but, hey, I’m never likely to meet the man who prefers to be called Cardinal Seán with the fada, so my pathetic preferences are irrelevant. Let’s give the man a small round of applause for seeking to be a man of the people.

It has to be said that Cardinal Seán’s humility doesn’t stop or start with the name. When all the cardinals headed off for their electoral duties in Rome not so long ago, and he was widely touted as a likely successor to Pope Benedict and therefore the first bearded pope in 213 years, it was noted that he lives, not in an episcopal palace, but in a rectory in Boston — “A simple home for a simple man” was the way CBS put it at the time. It was also noted he washed his own dishes, a worthwhile hygiene measure, although when the rest of us do it, we don’t usually get lack of pretension attributed to us.

That the Boston cardinal lives modestly and rinses off his own plates seems right and proper, particularly since he’s a Capuchin. Even more right and proper is the fact he sold the cardinal’s palace in which he might have lived to help settle multimillion-dollar claims from people abused by Boston priests.

Modesty notwithstanding, Cardinal Seán did not get elevated to St Peter’s chair. Instead, he went back home to his rectory and resumed his blog, which, a few days ago, moved beyond its usual accounts of where he’s been and what liturgical services he’s been part of. It told its readers what he was not planning to be part of, which was an upcoming ceremony at Boston College. Here’s what “Recently I learned that the Prime Minister of Ireland, the Hon Mr Enda Kenny was slated to receive an honorary degree at Boston College’s graduation this year. I am sure that the invitation was made in good faith, long before it came to the attention of the leadership of Boston College that Mr Kenny is aggressively promoting abortion legislation. The Irish Bishops have responded to that development byaffirming the Church’s teaching that ‘the deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of life is always morally wrong’ and expressed serious concern that the proposed legislation ‘represents a dramatic and morally unacceptable change to Irish law.’ Since the university has not withdrawn the invitation and because the Taoiseach has not seen fit to decline, I shall not attend the graduation.”

Not being at the commencement ceremony is a principled position the cardinal’s entitled to take and one which will meet with approval from many committed Catholics in the US. It may also meet with approval from some angry, committed Catholics here at home. And it may put pressure on Boston College to withdraw the invitation to the Taoiseach.

It is also subject to the law of unintended consequences, one of which has been to turn a pleasant public event into a major international platform for Enda Kenny. Until the cardinal blogged, hardly anybody even knew the Taoiseach was going to do the commencement address and he could have got away with the usual motivational guff typical of these occasions: “Go forth and conquer the world, undaunted by setbacks, ever determined to live your best life.” The event would have been courteously covered in a small way in Boston and Irish media, if only because the Taoiseach was following others, like JFK, who gave the same address. But no more than that.

Now, the address will attract huge attention and the Hon Mr Kenny will get all the opportunities he ever wanted to aggressively promote abortion legislation, if he so desires. But you know what? He doesn’t. And didn’t. And never has.

ADVOCATES of the pro-choice position close their eyes and shake their heads over his entrenched refusal to see the termination of an unwanted pregnancy as a woman’s right. At the other end of the continuum, those on the pro-life side within his own party, who struggle bitterly with the proposed legislation, nonetheless accept that it’s being introduced by a deeply conventional and observant Catholic who hates abortion. Not one statement made by him since the commitment to bring in a law as required by the Supreme Court could be interpreted as aggressively promoting abortion. Nor have the Irish hierarchy, which has properly and vehemently asserted the Church position on this issue, ever accused him of doing anything along those lines.

Minister of State Lucinda Creighton has rightly protested about being mis-characterised as a “fundamentalist” because she sees it as her duty to publicly express deeply held moral beliefs. This mis-characterisation is articulated, for the most part, by anonymous tweeters.

To have our Taoiseach mis-characterised as “aggressively promoting abortion legislation” because he sees it as his duty to rectify a gap in the law is just as wrong.

The difference is that it is articulated by a man who signs his name to it. A man of enormous power and influence. A man who, just a few weeks ago, it was believed might become pope.


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