Courageous Archbishop Brings a Red Hat to Dublin

Cardinal Connell Has Staunchly Defended Church Teachings

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DUBLIN, Ireland, FEB. 25, 2001 ( Archbishop Desmond Connell may have been made a cardinal last week for the same reason he is such a controversial figure in Ireland: his robust defense of Church teachings.

So says David Quinn, editor of The Irish Catholic, in an analysis he wrote for the U.S.-based National Catholic Register ( The Catholic Church in Ireland has for some years now been at the receiving end of a strong backlash from a secularized popular culture, Quinn wrote. Whereas once every utterance of a bishop was uncritically received, today they are routinely met with criticism, unless they are politically correct.

Quinn said this had led to a situation where few Irish bishops are willing to speak out on controversial issues; one of the few still willing to do so is Archbishop Connell, 74.

He was a surprise choice for the position of archbishop of Dublin in 1988 when he was plucked out of relative obscurity at University College, Dublin, where he had been teaching philosophy for 35 years. Immediately upon his appointment he was subjected to ferocious criticism for his «conservative» views, including that homosexuality is disordered, as the Catechism now teaches.

After his initial roasting Archbishop Connell went quiet for a few years. He was content to work away from public view putting the diocese in order.

One of his first big forays into the public arena came with the abortion referendum of 1992. Wording for a constitutional referendum had been put before the people which appeased neither pro-abortion nor pro-life forces. A statement from the bishops´ conference had said that it was permissible for Catholics to vote either way given the nature of the wording. Archbishop Connell, followed by three others bishops, publicly disagreed.

They declared why they would be voting No. Rome took note of this brave public stand, Quinn said, and within months Archbishop Connell was appointed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The next time he attracted major public criticism came in December 1997.

Mary McAleese, a Northern Catholic, had just been elected president of Ireland, a mostly ceremonial role. At a Christmas ecumenical service she was pictured receiving communion at an Anglican service in defiance of the Catholic Church´s ban on intercommunion.

Media commentators praised her for her action and attacked the Catholic Church for its ban. Archbishop Connell felt obliged to step into the fray. He said it was «sham» for Catholics to receive communion from a church with which they were not in full communion. Many people thought he meant that Anglican communion itself is a «sham.» He was roundly attacked for his «unecumenical» attitude.

The controversy went on for days. Radio shows took calls from outraged listeners. Pages of newspapers were devoted to it. Editorial writers, letter writers and columnists all lined up for their chance to attack him.

If anything, he came in for even worse criticism in the summer of 1999. He had delivered a speech defending Pope Paul VI´s encyclical reaffirming Church teaching on contraception, «Humanae Vitae.»

In it he said that parents who plan their children may come to regard them at some level as products. This could mean that the children might feel less loved resulting in anger and dysfunction. Women´s group led the attack on him. How dare he suggest that people who planned their families might love their children less than those who did not?

Again, the controversy raged for days on end. Once again Archbishop Connell became a national hate figure. Finally, he was attacked for this defense of the Vatican declaration on the uniqueness Jesus Christ and the Church, «Dominus Iesus,» late last year. Some ecumenists took note and didn´t like what they heard.

All of these public interventions only served to raise Archbishop Connell in Rome´s esteem, Quinn contended. A shy, self-effacing man who shuns publicity, Archbishop Connell does not deliberately court controversy, but the fact that he was willing to do so, and pay a price, went down well with the Vatican, the Irish editor said.

The first two cardinals in Ireland were based in Dublin. But since 1893 the red hats invariably had been given to Armagh in Northern Ireland. Why? Because Rome believed, according to Quinn, that the man in line for it, Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin, was already too powerful and too political.

Rome wanted to balance out Walsh by giving the red hat to someone else. Since Armagh is the ancient primatial see it made sense to give it to its archbishop, Michael Logue.

By the time the latter died in 1924, Ireland had been partitioned with the 26 counties of the South gaining independence, and the six counties of the North remaining in British hands.

With the Catholics of the North now a beleaguered minority, Rome felt, correctly, that they needed a «defender of the faithful» as much as a defender of the faith. It is only now, with the situation in Northern Ireland beginning to settle down, that it has become practical to return the red hat to Dublin.

After last Wednesday´s consistory, the new Cardinal Connell met reporters on the steps of St. Peter´s Basilica. He revealed that when the Pope gave him the biretta, he thanked the Holy Father on behalf of Ireland.

«I told him that Ireland thanked him for this great honor, because it is something very special» for the country, the cardinal said. «As you can see, there were so many cardinals appointed, there are needs all over the world, and that Ireland should get a second cardinal at this time was truly remarkable and a sign of the very great benevolence of the Holy Father, his great love of Ireland.»

Noting the increase of the Latin American representation in the College of Cardinals — it grew by 11 at the consistory — the Irish cardinal said he was pleased with the news: «Latin America, of course, had fallen to a perilously low level. … It was absolutely necessary to increase the number of votes … because Latin America is so very important, such an immense number of the Catholics of the world are in Latin America.»

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