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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EUROFILE: Irish President Puts Tolerance Above Church

Mary McAleese, the Irish Republic's president, has a reputation for being strong-willed. But when voters elected her last October, few thought that she would stir a national controversy less than two months after taking the oath of office. Fewer still thought that such a controversy might be about religion.

McAleese, a practicing Catholic in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, clearly knew what she was doing when she took Communion Dec. 7 in a Protesta nt cathedral in Dublin. She allowed photographers to take pictures of her raising the goblet to her lips.

In performing this act, she became the first Catholic Irish head of state to take Communion in a Protestant church. The symbolism was profound, and the act itself was brave. Irishmen of both faiths have been killed for much less down the centuries.

McAleese was sending a message to Catholics in the Republic, and to Protestants and Catholics alike in British-ruled Northern Ireland, that she intends to "build bridges" between the island's divided communities. As a former law professor and member of Northern Ireland's Catholic minority by origin, she is well qualified for such a role.

Her predecessor as Irish president, Mary Robinson, was also a bridge-builder and won huge respect around the world for her tolerant, thoughtful humanity. Although the presidency is a largely ceremonial post, both women believe it can be used to promote the negotiations currently in progress among London, Dublin and politicians in the north to achieve a comprehensive Ireland settlement.

Alas, not everyone appreciated McAleese's gesture. The Republic's Catholic bishops bluntly declared that Roman Catholics were not allowed to take Communion in Protestant churches, and that was that. By implication, their ban applied even to heads of state inspired by a determination to put healing above division and tolerance above hate.

The Catholic hierarchy is making a big mistake in condemning McAleese and insisting that she has committed something close to a mortal sin. Most citizens of the Republic think of themselves as Catholic, but they do not live in awe of the Church.

The country is no longer the priest-ridden backwater that it was in the 1930s and 1940s. It is one of the most rapidly modernizing countries in Europe. Young people have no time for the obscurantist enthusiasms of unyielding churchmen.

They understand perfectly well that McAleese is doing what she can to end Ireland's age-old conflict. If the Church stands in her way, then it is the Church, not McAleese, that will lose public support.

The president has received backing from important quarters. Two weeks after McAleese visited Dublin's Christ Church cathedral, the U.S. ambassador to the Republic, Jean Kennedy Smith, went to the same place of worship and took Communion in the same manner as the president had done.

It was a great boost for McAleese to receive such a public show of solidarity from a member of America's most prominent Catholic family. Ordinary people in the Republic are strongly pro-American and will long remember that the U.S. ambassador sided with their president on this issue.

As for the Church hierarchs, they need to wake up. In an increasingly secular country with no interest in perpetuating religious quarrels, they will have no future unless they embrace the politics of tolerance and "bridge-building" as McAleese has done.