The Vatican has given a measured response to Ireland's decision to close its embassy to the Holy See, saying it is free to do so based on what a state believes is practically possible and in a nation's interests.
However, the news came as a shock to Church officials who are deeply disappointed by the move.
The Irish government will maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See but says it has decided to close the mission — one of the country's oldest — as part of a cost-cutting program prompted by the EU-IMF bailout conditions.
The government has also decided to shutter its embassies in Iran and East Timor.
In a statement issued Nov. 3, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that every state that has diplomatic relations with the Holy See is “free to decide, on the basis of its possibilities and its interests, whether to have an ambassador to the Holy See who is resident in Rome or resident in another country.”
“What is important,” Lombardi added, “is the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the states, and these are not in question with regard to Ireland.”
A number of states have diplomatic missions to the Holy See with non-resident ambassadors. However, Ireland's embassy at the Vatican is one of the country's oldest, symbolizing strong historic ties to the Church. The Holy See was also the first state to recognize Ireland as an independent nation.
This has led some observers to view current poor relations between the Irish government and the Vatican, which have extensively deteriorated over the Church's handling of sex abuse cases, as a probable underlying cause.
But Eamon Gilmore, Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs, denied the embassy closure was linked. "That was not a consideration," Gilmore told state broadcaster RTE on Thursday. "Our diplomatic relations with the Vatican will continue and they are valued."
Ireland has been without a representative to the Holy See since July when Ambassador Noel Fahey retired. Since then it has been run by just a charge d'affaires.
Tempers rose during the summer after Prime Minister Enda Kenny issued strong accusations against the Holy See for obstructing investigations into sexual abuse by priests. The abuse was revealed in a report on the diocese of Cloyne.
The charges were strenuously denied by the Vatican, which called them “unsubstantiated” in a lengthy response. Soon afterwards, the Vatican recalled to Rome its ambassador to Ireland although the nunciature is still operative.
Gilmore said the Irish embassy to the Holy See yielded no economic return, but added he did not expect the Vatican now to close its mission in Dublin. “The fact that we have chosen to close our mission in the Vatican and to have it serviced from Dublin doesn't necessarily mean that we won't have a Papal Nuncio here,” he said.
Ireland's decision comes at a time when Vatican diplomacy has received mixed reviews of late. Some diplomats have privately voiced frustration at poor communications and a gradual loss of prestige.
But others, arguably the majority, continue to value the Holy See's vast outreach and moral voice, and note that Vatican diplomacy has been strengthened during Benedict XVI's pontificate.
Great Britain, a historically anti-Catholic country, is bolstering its relationship with the Holy See. Formal diplomatic relations have been made with Montenegro, the United Arab Emirates, and Botswana.
Also, in December last year, the Russian Federation, which had had relations of a special nature with the Holy See, upgraded bilateral ties to full diplomatic relations.
Insiders are not convinced of Ireland's official reasons for the decision, and see it as a populist move (Kenny's speech against the Vatican was known to be well received by the general population). Some also blame a small posse of anti-Catholic ministers and advisers surrounding the prime minister.
Cardinal Sean Brady, the Primate of All Ireland, said the closure will "disappoint many" and seems to show “little regard for the important role played by the Holy See in international relations and of the historic ties between the Irish people and the Holy See over many centuries."
The cardinal added that he hoped the decision would later be reconsidered “as soon as possible.”
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