When Mary McAleese was elected President of Ireland last month many had pigeon-holed her as a right-wing conservative Catholic who could be expected to follow the rules of her church. But already she has plunged into the business of demonstrating that being devout is not the same as being orthodox.
She made the move which enraged Maynooth, a leading seminary, on the morning of Sunday, 7 December in Christ Church, one of Dublin's two Protestant cathedrals, when she rose in her pew, looked meaningfully at the watching media, and took Communion from a member of the Church of Ireland.
The first northerner to become president, Mrs McAleese had been accused during the election campaign of insensitivity towards Protestants. Since she had countered that she wanted her presidency to be about bridge-building, her action in Christ Church could be viewed as a practical demonstration of that aspiration.
Her gesture provoked no immediate outcry: Catholics do not normally take Communion in Protestant churches, but most who took any notice of the event viewed it as a welcome ecumenical gesture.
But then some muted early rumblings of disapproval within the Catholic church erupted into open criticism. The hierarchy met and, while emphasising that it did not wish to censure or embarrass the president or damage ecumenical relations, it let it be known that what the president had done was contrary to Canon Law.
Father McEvoy, however, was much less genteel. "I would find it repugnant if she should ever again abuse the august office which she occupies in a way which would once more embarrass the Catholic church, by giving scandal to its members," he thundered. "Maybe the time has come for her to build another bridge, one that will bring her back to her fellow-Catholics."
Then the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell, explained during a radio interview that core differences between the churches created a fundamental barrier to inter-Communion. But he then added the latest in a line of PR disasters for the Catholic church when he said of Catholics: "What they are in fact doing in partaking of the Eucharist in a Protestant church is a sham."
His use of the word "sham" startled many Catholics and offended much of the Irish Republic's small Protestant population: Church of Ireland bishops were said to be distressed by the sentiments, and the language, used in the controversy. Archbishop Connell has said several times that he intended no disrespect, but his choice of words certainly deepened the controversy.
The fact that the issue has flared up in this way has raised deep questions, most particularly about the parameters of the presidency and the authority of the Catholic church. Mrs McAleese, as a prominent lay Catholic, once chaired an inter-church committee which considered the Communion issue, and was therefore well aware that her action would not find favour with the bishops.
But then she has not been an admirer of the Irish hierarchy, having described it as "a shabby bleak procession of Pontius Pilate lookalikes, abusing priests, disinterested abbots and impotent cardinals". She clearly knew that taking Communion in a Protestant cathedral was the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet to the hierarchy.
Fr McEvoy's comments have the ring of a man who believes the McAleese presidency is going to be one of direct challenge to the Church. At this early stage the president has opinion on her side, for in an poll she won 78 per cent. The signs are that most Irish Catholics approve of bridge- building, even if it offends against dogma, and believe the hierarchy is out of touch.Reuse content