Cardinal Desmond Connell has died aged 90, generating – since he was the best known avatar of the conservative Catholic Church – predictably ambivalent obituaries.
Born in Dublin’s Phibsborough he attended Belvedere College, Clonliffe diocesan seminary, and UCD where he picked up a brilliant MA. After St Patrick’s College, Maynooth where he was a bachelor of, among other things, divinity, he was ordained in 1951 and got a doctorate at the Pontifical University of Leuven, where his subject was the 17th-century French philosopher, Nicolas Malebranche – whose trick was to synthesise the thinking of St Augustine with that of Descartes – and about whom he later wrote a book which addressed many of the most complex issues relating to angels.
He was appointed professor of metaphysics in UCD in 1972 and became dean of the faculty of philosophy and sociology in 1983 from where he held doctrinaire sway for a generation. In 1988, the future St John Paul II named him Archbishop of Dublin which he remained for sixteen long and purgatorial years. In 2001 he became the first Archbishop of Dublin to have been made a cardinal in almost 120 years.
He led the archdiocese at a difficult time as faith broke down due to the ‘Late Late Show’, the invention of the contraceptive pill and an outbreak of education, and lovechild scandals such as those of Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary enveloped an increasingly unsheepish flock.
Despite his seraphim-on-a-pin unworldliness, he managed to pull the diocese out of crippling debt. He also championed the underdog at every opportunity: Travellers, refugees, the unemployed. A close colleague said, “he loved music, history, gardening, dogs. He loved his pipe”. He liked Bruckner, Elgar and Mahler and, according to obituary writers, was greatly loved by his priests and by many of his former university students.
It was not enough.
The first draft of history has already been written and it damns him, in temporal terms, for how he handled child abuse in his diocese.
The 2009 report of the independent Commission of Investigation, headed by Judge Yvonne Murphy, looked specifically at the handling of some 325 abuse claims in the Archdiocese of Dublin, 1975-2004 incorporating much of Connell’s time: “The Dublin Archdiocese’s preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid-1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church and the preservation of its assets”, concluded the report. “All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities”.
Although he had had the nous to set up the Child Protection Office in 2003, the report said then-Archbishop Connell was “slow to recognise the seriousness of the situation when he took over in 1988. He was over-reliant on advice from other people, including his auxiliary bishops and legal and medical experts”. There is substantial evidence that while personally appalled at the horror of a little child being abused by a person who had promised to give his life to God, he was not good at conveying this horror to victims.
It is fatuous, as many have unsympathetically claimed, to make out that Connell did not himself realise this. In 2009 Connell issued a full apology in the Pro Cathedral. At a mass to commemorate the 24th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s papacy, he said, “I did not effectively deal with it. I failed”. He also has said “I ask pardon of all whom I have offended, especially of those who suffered unspeakable abuse by priests of the diocese and experienced a lack of the care that ought to have been provided”. This is, perhaps appropriately in view of the special social privilege afforded the clergy in its ascendancy, a much more abject apology than would be normal from, for example, a politician, or a banker.
According to Breda O’Brien, the Irish Times’ apologist for Catholicism: “The general consensus is now that he was a good man trying his best in a role for which he was radically unsuited, but he was more complex and faced a more complex time than that simple summation suggests”.
She refers then to his concept of mental reservation – that is, the idea that while one could not tell a direct lie, one was not obliged to tell the full truth – we were profoundly shocked”. Certainly it is determining that the Archbishop didn’t make the Truth his central concern. But why would he? She goes on to defend his secrecy: “His age and generational values meant that he opposed the opening of diocesan files, not in a desire to hide damaging secrets but because he was horrified at the idea that people who had told their stories in confidence would be betrayed”. Again that was to be expected.
As Murphy so clearly inferred, Connell’s central concern was the faith and the institutional Catholic Church and its traditions teachings, transcendent as they are. If his concern had been the Truth he would have better been a scientist or cosmologist. He was driven by Catholic dogma defined as “a truth revealed by God, which the magisterium of the Church declared as binding” but also, according for example to the Second Vatican Council’s document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum (‘The Word of God’), both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same devotion and reverence”.
Abuse survivor Marie Collins, who met Connell often during the period covered by the Murphy report said, before expressing the wish that he rest in peace : “He was a man of his time”. Again this entirely misses the point. He thought of himself as a man for all time, an agent for the eternal Church. Otherwise why be a priest rather than a social worker? If he failed to follow the vogue for happy-clappy openness, for the fallible watering down of God-given theology by liberalism, that was not because he was a man of his time but the opposite. This epoch, this country, are in the hands of all too many who change their views to suit what is popular. There is no lack of integrity with someone, who feels strongly enough about an institution and its belief, to give his life to them, failing to waver in the face of pleas to alter them to suit the needs and desires of the current fickle Trump-and-Facebook generation, or any other generation.
O’Brien cites one of O’Connell’s rather sweeping ratiocination “that “in the case of in vitro fertilisation, surrogate motherhood, genetic engineering, cloning…the child produced by the decision of the parents begins to look more and more like a technological product”. But then, notes O’Brien, “comes the kicker”: “But it may not be altogether absent in the practice of family planning”. “Unintentionally, he managed to offend anyone who practised any means of spacing the arrival of children”.
It is most unlikely it was unintentional. And Connell did not mind offending if it was in the interest of an eternal, or semi-eternal, truth, especially one that registered the Natural Law. The Church says that artificial contraception is morally wrong, because each and every sex act can occur only between husband and wife and must be directed toward two ends: love and life. In this context it is notable that until the 1930s all Christian denominations considered contraception sinful.
This brings us to a statement as recently as February 2017 from the current pope, Francis, someone perceived as somewhat liberal but who in fact clearly and properly holds on to basic Church norms, norms held dear by many of the 1.2 member Catholic congregation, by their predecessors since the time of St Peter, but more importantly, by God. “There are those who say, ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to mass, I belong to this and that association’,”. He said some of these people should also say “‘my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my employees proper salaries, I exploit people, I do dirty business, I launder money, [I lead] a double life’”.
It is highly significant that Francis has not pontificated on whether it is hypocritical, or unChristian, to defend the Church’s institutions and dogmas even where they are not apparently philanthropic and do not conduce to the common good.
Writing in the Sunday Business Post, Elaine Byrne saw the problem as bigger than just Connell. She wrote that “The men with the mitres are getting more and more distant and disconnected. While Ireland has changed they have not”. In fact they are no more distant and disconnected than they have always been and if Ireland has changed that is not their problem.
Desmond Connell was a man blessed with enormous integrity. He was clearly a Catholic but not always some people’s idea of a Christian. Whether he was good is a matter either for his God, or for the ages. You decide.