14 June 2008

Which side in Ireland took Pope Benedict’s 'hint' – if any – in the Lisbon Treaty referendum?

Some were speculating – see my post yesterday - that Pope Benedict’s talk last Wednesday on St Columban, in which he described the saint as ‘one of the fathers of Europe’, was a hint to the voters in the Irish Republic to vote the following day in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, which has to be approved by each of the 27 members-states of the European Union to come into effect. Ireland was the only country where the matter was put to the people, as such a treaty involves an amendment of its Constitution.

Polls before the referendum held last Thursday all indicated a result too close to call. The pundits predicted that if the turnout of voters wasn’t much higher than 40 percent the ‘Yes’ side would win. The higher the turnout, they said, the greater the chance for the ‘No’ side to win.

As it happened, 53.13% of those eligible to do so voted, a high turnout for a referendum. Of those, 46.5% voted for ‘Yes’ and 53.4% for ‘No.’ So the pundits were right. But the ‘knife-edge’ turned out to be a blunt instrument leaving many leading Irish politicians reeling.

The main government party, Fianna Fáil, and the two main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, urged their supporters to vote yes. Last week, for the first time ever, the leaders of those three parties held a joint press conference in which they spoke of the importance, as they saw it, of the people voting for ‘Yes’. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two largest parties in the Irish Republic, trace their origins to the Irish Civil War (1922-23) and have never been in government together.

I’m doubtful that Pope Benedict was using St Columban to give a gentle hint to the Irish voters. Yes, the saint is in a very real sense ‘one of the fathers or Europe’ – the Christian Europe that the proposed but rejected European Constitution refused to acknowledge. The Lisbon Treaty is that same proposed constitution under a different name, according to many.

But while St Columban was ‘a father of Europe’ he wrote a number of letters to different popes asking that he and his monks follow the Irish calendar for Easter rather than the Roman one. In other words, while absolutely loyal to the teachings of the Church and to the pope, he was prepared to fight for this. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the reaction of some of those popes on receiving a letter from St Columban wasn’t ‘Not him again!’ Here are Pope Benedict’s word about this aspect of the saint’s life:

An occasion to manifest their opposition (bishops who opposed Columban’s introduction of private and repeated confession and penances) was the dispute about the date of Easter. Ireland, in fact, followed the Eastern tradition as opposed to the Roman. The Irish monk was called in 603 to Chalon-sur-Saon to render account before a synod of his practices related to penance and Easter. Instead of appearing at the synod, he sent a letter in which he minimized the issue inviting the synodal fathers to discuss not only the problem of the date of Easter, a small problem according to him, ‘but also of all the necessary canonical normatives that are disregarded - something more grave - by many’ (cfr. Epistula II,1). At the same time, he wrote to Pope Boniface IV - as some years earlier he had turned to Pope Gregory the Great (cfr. Epistula I) - to defend the Irish tradition (cfr. Epistula III).

So those on the ‘No’ side could equally speculate that Pope Benedict was encouraging them rather than the ‘Yes’ supporters by speaking about St Columban.

The full results of the referendum, and of all previous referenda in Ireland, are here.

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