Ireland's message for the Pope

President Mary Robinson visits the Vatican - not an easy day for the pontiff.
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The Independent Online
President Mary Robinson's meeting in Rome with Pope John Paul II tomorrow is a historic occasion. The last time a female head of Ireland, Elizabeth I, came in direct contact with the Pope, she was excommunicated. The parallels are striking, but so too are the contrasts.

Elizabeth I was sovereign head of a country at the forefront of a major challenge to the power of Rome: England. Robinson is head of an Irish republic where sovereignty resides in the people. As the people's representative, President Robinson will have a number of key questions on her mind, and the Pope's response could be crucial.

The Pope will no doubt wish to raise some current Irish issues: the dangers of a new Education Bill, the Divorce Act, the widespread availability of contraception, and abortion information. But given Robinson's stature and courage, nobody should be under any illusion that this will be a one-way conversation.

It is said that one of the patron saints of Ireland, St Brigit, stood at several thresholds of Irish life: the old and new, rich and poor. She mediated between these traditions, and both she and her successors, the abbesses of Kildare, were known as those who "turned back the streams of war".

President Robinson stands in that great tradition of Irish womanhood, not through ecclesiastical endorsement, but by virtue of her intelligence, compassion, and commitment. She is a feminist in the best sense of the word, and for many years she was a lone voice in the legal profession championing the cause of women over access to contraception, rights for minorities, social provisions for single mothers and legal equality in marital status.

Ireland had little truck with Elizabeth's 16th century Reformation. Given its political and social history, the country was best served by maintaining its alliance with the one European institution potentially capable of challenging colonial England: the Roman Catholic Church. Irish Catholicism has been profoundly shaped by colonial history, especially following the disastrous famines of the mid-19th century. The subsequent "devotional revolution" gave rise to a massive increase in vocations to religious life, sexually repressive practices, and a piety born of despair rather than hope.

Now secular control of education, legalised divorce, access to contraception and abortion are all seriously on the political agenda, and some have been achieved. The number of religious vocations is declining rapidly, church attendance is falling, clerical scandals and reports of child abuse in religious-run institutions have shattered ordinary Catholics and undermined the triumphalism of the clerical establishment.

This has thrown wide open the question of abuse and violence in the home. Agencies are now besieged by adult survivors of such abuse as well as current victims. A recent court decision allowed three women to open the question of their father's abuse 30 years ago. The dam has burst, and no amount of wishful thinking or repression will stem the tide. Irish Catholicism is being forced to search deeply into its hitherto innocent heart.

James Joyce, on going into exile, declared that he went forth "to forge in the smithy of my own soul the uncreated conscience of my race". Robinson stayed home and did just that. She has attempted to develop a new Irish identity: phrases such as "the island of Ireland", are carefully chosen to transcend old political stalemates, and to encourage all Irish people to live together in peace.

In the tradition of the Jewish and Christian prophets before her, Robinson calls for "mercy and not sacrifice". In her work as a lawyer she will have seen too many women sacrificed to maintain the facade of self-righteousness and innocence of a fading Ireland. Under her influence, whatever Irish identity will be forged will not be sacrificially achieved: that is to say, it will not be at someone else's expense.

Over the past 30 years three thousand people have died violent deaths and countless thousands have been maimed, blinded, and bereaved in parts of Ireland. This violence is at least underpinned, if not caused, by religious sectarianism. No self-respecting politician in Ireland can ignore the substantive question that will lie behind this historic meeting: Can the unique position of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, and in particular the enshrinement of its moral codes into the law of the land, any longer be sustained? The Pope may well wish this to be the case, but the vast majority of ordinary Irish Catholics now deem otherwise.

Behind this question lies another. The Catholic church in Ireland has traditionally enjoyed constitutional protection. In a multicultural society, this is no longer tenable. The question is thus: is the future of Irish Catholicism contingent upon maintaining its traditional legal safeguards, or can Irish Catholics be trusted with preserving the best features of a faith that has served them well without petrifying that faith, and without the legal safeguards hitherto afforded to them by the constitution?

In essence, that will be the question to be posed by President Robinson to the Roman pontiff. Although the President has no executive powers, the Pope is under no illusion as to her moral and spiritual influence in Ireland - influence that possibly surpasses that of the executive power structure. Her message to the Pope might be as follows: if Catholicism is not part of the solution, then it may be part of the problem. The choices are stark.

Traditionally, Irish Catholic mothers could have been counted on to pass on the Catholic faith. However, in the light of Ireland's political and social history, where children have been sacrificed to maintain a facade, and where political violence is underpinned by sacrificial motifs, many are now simply turning away in search of a life-giving spirituality - one that will serve to empower their search for new ways of living with integrity.

Once content to act as handmaids of the Church, Irish women are demanding a voice and, in some cases, full ministerial authority. One of the last straws grasped at by St Thomas Aquinas to refuse priestly ordination to women was that women (like slaves) could "not signify eminence". President Robinson is proof that they can, and a compelling example of why they must.

The writer is director of the Institute for Feminism and Religion, and author of 'The Serpent and the Goddess: women, religion and power in Celtic Ireland'.