The End of Awe

By Maureen Dowd (New York Times)
July 23, 2011

Wednesday found both the British prime minister and the Irish taoiseach passionately addressing their parliaments about the demystified lords of their universes.

Frantically distancing himself from the pope of Fleet Street, David Cameron sardonically assured riled-up lawmakers that he had never seen Rebekah Brooks in her PJs because he had not attended Gordon Brown's wife's slumber party at Chequers with Wendi Deng and Elisabeth Murdoch in 2008.

He conceded that he should not have ignored warnings from the palace and elsewhere against bringing a capo from the sulfurous Murdoch gang into his inner circle.

Across the Irish Sea in Dublin, Enda Kenny took on the actual pope, making a blazing speech about the Vatican's unconscionable behavior in the pedophilia scandal.

After 17 years of revolting revelations, Kenny said the latest report on the Cloyne diocese in County Cork exposed "an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago."

The report, he said, "excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold, instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation.'

"Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St. Benedict's 'ear of the heart,' the Vatican's reaction was to parse and analyze it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position being the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion upon which the Roman church was founded."

Pulling back the curtain to expose the profane amid the sacred would have been remarkable coming from any leader in one of the many countries scarred by pedophile priests, but from the devoutly Catholic prime minister of a nation whose constitution once enshrined the special position of the church, it was breathtaking.

The Irish were taken aback by the ire of the ordinarily amiable, soft-spoken Kenny, the longest-serving parliamentarian in the land. In his first few months as Taoiseach, the 60-year-old had not given any sign that he could throw such Zeus-style thunderbolts.

But bankrupt and battered Eire, which needed a shot of muscular national pride, was thrilled with his emphatic articulation of their revulsion at the tragedy, and his assertion of Ireland as a sovereign republic not under the thumb of Rome.

"If you look at some of his predecessors, going right back 50 years, they would have been very much of the view that they were Catholics first and politicians second," said Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.

Sounding like he could have been talking about Rupert Murdoch's fief as well, Ferriter observed: "There has been this very obvious and planned and hugely arrogant policy of obfuscation and deliberate delaying tactics and complete avoidance of responsibility on the part of the Vatican. They were actually treating the sovereign government of Ireland with complete contempt."

He added: "We're fed up with hearing about canon law. This is a Republic, it's about civil law."

Garry O'Sullivan, the editor of The Irish Catholic, compared the resonance of the speech to the French revolution, without the violence. "The French Republic didn't kick out the Catholic Church, but they set up a French Catholic Church and kicked out Rome," he said. "Kenny has tapped into a vein in the Irish psyche, people saying, 'Well done for standing up to those bloody bishops and the pope.' It was lancing a boil."

Like other elites in shaken Ireland, like the multimillionaire bankers and real estate developers, the church elite is rapidly losing clout. "The mighty have fallen from their thrones," O'Sullivan said.

Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, who has been frozen out by the Vatican and his fellow Irish bishops for his tender solicitude toward abuse victims, teared up on Irish TV talking about Kenny's cri de coeur.

What church "cabal" is this in the Vatican or Ireland, he asked, "who try to undermine what is being done, or simply refuse to understand what is being done?"

In Britain and in Ireland, two dictatorial institutions that once dominated with fearsome power are crumbling, brought low by highhanded cultures inured even to crimes against children.

A large part of the strategy of the Vatican and Rupert Murdoch in acquiring power was to create an aura of invincibility, a hallowed mystique. But those mythologies are cracking, and people are no longer afraid to confront these empires' corrupt practices and vast cover-ups.

It is stirring to watch people who have long been cowed finally speaking up, shedding their fear of the authoritarian men at the top who owed their power to the awe of the people.