David O'Hanlon (priest)

Father David O'Hanlon (Irish: Dáibhéad Ua hAnluain) (born in 1969) is a controversial Irish Roman Catholic priest and theologian. His attacks on the then President of Ireland, on members of the Irish hierarchy and fellow priests, and on the Irish media earned him notoriety. His critique of liberalism, drawing on some of the philosophical presuppositions of writers such Alasdair MacIntyre and Roger Scruton, has received praise and criticism in Ireland.

Early life

Dáibhéad Gearóid Ua hAnluain was born in 1969 at Boyerstown, a small village and townland near Navan, Co. Meath. He received his early education at the Boyerstown National School and at St. Patrick's Classical School in Navan.

He entered St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, as a clerical student for the diocese of Meath in 1987. He gained a double first class honours in Greek and Latin for his Bachelor of Arts degree and took first over-all place in the 1990 National University of Ireland graduation list for Maynooth.

Transferred to the Pontifical Irish College, Rome, he obtained a first class degree in theology at the Gregorian University in 1993, and a Licentiate of Sacred Theology, with specialization in Patristics from the Augustinianum in 1997. Fr. O'Hanlon is regarded as an expert on pre-chalcedonian Christology. His thesis was entitled The Symbolum Antiochenum of 433: The Self Defeating Culmination of a Christological Novelty, and attracted much academic praise for its ground-breaking work.

Ordained in 1995 Fr. O'Hanlon was curate in the County Meath parish of Kentstown, near Navan. In 2007 he began research for a Doctorate in Sacred Theology in Rome.

Denouncing another priest as a "charlatan" and "fraud"

Fr. O'Hanlon rose to public prominence in the 1990s due to a controversial interview he gave to Gay Byrne on RTÉ's The Late Late Show in which he disagreed strongly with members of the studio audience and a fellow Catholic priest, Fr. Iggy O'Donovan, who was on the panel. During a heated discussion (which the presenter extended, postponing other parts of the show, such was the ferocity of the debate), Fr. O'Hanlon controversially denouncing another priest mentioned by a member of the audience as a "charlatan", a "fraud" and a "hypocrite".

President Robinson "cheap"

Fr. O'Hanlon caused particular controversy when in an Irish Times article in 1997 he labelled the President of Ireland "cheap", writing that she had visited the Papal Apartments "bedizened in Kelly green, showy jewellery and — to boot — a sprig of vegetation". He accused Mary Robinson of a series of acts:

  • dressing inappropriately for a visit to Pope John Paul II by not wearing black and not wearing a mantilla,
  • showing the Pope disrespect by not paying a state visit to him earlier in her term of office,
  • breaking Vatican protocol by visiting the Vatican while on a state visit to Italy, and of
  • breaking Vatican protocol by not being accompanied by her chaplain and by not visiting the tomb of Saint Peter.

He alleged that she wanted to get herself turned away from the Vatican for being "improperly dressed" (possibly to make herself a hero to Irish liberals or to avoid receiving papal criticism of Irish state policies on the family and marriage). He even claimed there was precedent for a high-ranking woman visitor to the Pope being turned away for being improperly dressed. He claimed it had happened to Princess Paola of Belgium when she went to meet Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s.

Most of O'Hanlon's claims have been disputed.

  • Vatican dress codes for both men and women were relaxed early in Pope John Paul II's pontificate. While most female royalty still abide by the traditional dress code (black dress, mantilla) most female republican heads of state or First Ladies don't. Raisa Gorbachev, famously wore red. (photo) Robinson's dark green outfit had been judged perfectly acceptable by the Vatican. Whereas earlier presidents of Ireland, notably Éamon de Valera in the 1960s (see image), were required by Vatican protocol to wear white Tie and decorations (honours), the male equivalent of the traditional black dress and manilla Robinson's immediate predecessor, Patrick Hillery, like Robinson, was allowed to wear less formal attire, in his case a lounge suit for his April 1989 visit. When Taoiseach Bertie Ahern wore the traditional white tie to the ceremony raising the Archbishop of Dublin to the cardinate, he found himself to be only guest wearing it. All the other official guests without exception had worn lounge suits. According to The Examiner when Robinson's successor, Mary McAleese visited the Pope "the Vatican had earlier told the President's advisers that a traditional lace mantilla was not a requirement.
  • State visits are only paid by invitation. Robinson's visit was an "private" visit. Robinson was not invited to pay a state visit during her term because the last state visit by an Irish president had occurred in April 1989, one year before her term started, the next invitation to an Irish president to pay a state visit was not due for a decade, meaning that whomever was elected in the 1990 presidential election would not be receiving an invitation to pay a state visit to the Holy See.
  • Presidents only are accompanied by their chaplain and visit the tomb of Saint Peter on state visits, not private visits.
  • World leaders regularly pay personal visits to meet the Pope while on a state visit to Italy, contrary to O'Hanlon's claims.
  • Princess Paola of Belgium was never turned away from an audience with Pope John XXIII. While on a private trip to Rome as a tourist whose identity was unknown she went to St. Peter's Basilica. An attendant declined her admittance because her arms were uncovered. Vatican protocol did not allow women with uncovered arms to enter the basilica. Neither the attendant nor the Vatican knew at the time that the tourist was a member of the Belgian Royal Family (and future queen). When the Pope discovered what had happened he apologised and invited her to an audience.

The fact that it was a personal visit and not a state visit was shown in two ways:

  • the papal dress on the day: on state visits popes wear a form of choral dress (red mozzetta) with stole. Pope John Paul II wore a standard white cassock during his meeting with President Robinson, indicating that the meeting was not at state visit level;
  • the awarding of a papal order to the visiting head of state. President de Valera, for example, was one of the last heads of state to be awarded the Order of Christ, by Pope John XXIII, while President O'Kelly was awarded the Pian Order (3rd Class) by Pope Pius XII. Papal awards during state visits are automatic, with details negotiated between the governments of the state whose head of state is visiting and the government of the Holy See. No award was offered to President Robinson, nor was one expected.

The distinction between the two types of papal visit, state and non-state, is shown in the language used in describing such visits. The Catholic Press Office in Dublin, in listing papal engagements, describes state visits in the format State visit of French President Jacques Chirac (20 January 1996) etc. In contrast non-state visits are variously described as audiences, someone being received by the Pope, or simply a visit. For example, Pope receives Lien Chan, vice president and prime minister of the Republic of China (14 January 1997), Visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3 February 1997), Pope receives King Albert II and Queen Paola of the Belgians (15 May 1998). Robinson's visit on 10 May 1997 was described with the words Ireland's President Mary Robinson received by [the] Holy Father, clearly indicating it was simply an informal visit, in which she was visiting, and so being received by, Pope John Paul, not a formal state visit surrounded by all the ritual associated; visits to Peter's tomb, a large formal delegation, formal dress (black or otherwise), swapping of honours, state banquets, etc.

Bishops disown comments

O'Hanlon's comments were quickly disowned by the Catholic Church. The Vatican rejected his claim that a breach of protocol had occurred, expressing puzzlement at the allegations and saying that the visit had been a complete success. Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe expressed

dismay, embarrassment, outrage are the reactions. We are simply appalled that a fellow priest would refer to our president — or indeed to any person — as being 'cheap'.

O'Hanlon's bishop, Michael Smith, disassociated himself, his diocese and its priests from the comments. O'Hanlon's uncle, a Catholic priest, wrote the Irish newspapers to disown his nephew's comments.

Bishop John Kirby expressed "shock" and ten priests along with Kirby from the Irish charity Trócaire wrote to the Irish Times to disassociate themselves from O'Hanlon's comments. The Catholic Press Office in Dublin stated that the President's dress had been of "no concern" while press spokesman Jim Cantwell dismissed claims that the Pope was offended as "a bit ridiculous". The President's chaplain, Maynooth College lecturer Father Enda McDonagh, categorised the attack as "partly begrudgery and partly mistaken piety.

O'Hanlon replied in the Irish Times with a series of attacks on his critics. He wrote in an article

Sadly, I am not acquainted with any of the [individuals who signed the letter].

He added

Old priests tell me they were once the up-and-coming generation. Does it threaten them that somebody like myself, a neophyte of 28, now rejects their complacent, characterless, and crumbling compromise between Church and modern Ireland?

He refused to accept that there were major errors in his original claim, and wrote

We call a person cheap not because they look cheap but because their actions are cheap. I call the President of Ireland cheap because her behaviour in Rome towards her host, the Bishop of Rome, was a cheap travesty of respect and a cheap personal propaganda stunt from start to finish.

He explained his belief as to why the President of Ireland would supposedly have wanted to have been thrown out of a papal audience:

This . . . might then be represented to the Irish people as the ultimate bang of a crosier for all that post-Catholic Ireland has become, and the last gasp of a desperate, discredited, rigid, reactionary, and patriarchal regime.

Mary wanted John Paul to give her a black eye; his Holiness serenely turned her a blind (albeit 'twinkling') one. She wanted to cut a provocative, modern, dashing figure. He left her looking like a crank.

What President Robinson represented in reality at the Vatican was nothing other than her own personal animosity towards Catholicism as interpreted by Pope John Paul II — a clear case of very cross dressing!

Fr. Austin Flannery, a senior Irish priest and theologian who had been a compiler of documents in Vatican II (and who had been dismissed by O'Hanlon as a "has been"), criticised O'Hanlon's remarks as "ill-informed and very offensive".

A newspaper columnist, Medb Ruane, referring to comments by Fr. O'Hanlon about women, suggested that the motivation for his attacks on Mary Robinson and the reasons for her supposed offence were clear. "The real question is not so much whether she did or did not deliberately flout convention, but rather that she is. She is." She believed his comments "hint at an attitude to women that may inform his feelings about the president."

O'Hanlon's comments dominated both the print and broadcast media for up to one month. Fr. O'Hanlon refused pressure from the Catholic Church to withdraw his allegations and apologise.

Funder of Dana, Rosemary Scallon

Fr. O'Hanlon was revealed to be one of those who funded the political campaigns Family Values and pro-life campaigner Dana Rosemary Scallon, with a number of donations of €1000. Scallon had earned considerable criticism from both the Catholic Church and from pro-life campaigners for her involvement in a controversial more radical "anti-abortion" campaign, which had set itself up as a rival to the more mainstream campaigners during one of Ireland's abortion referendums. Her campaign ensured sufficient conservatives voted against a tightening of the abortion law in the hope of achieving a complete ban. Critics accused her of causing the defeat of the only likely change there was to tighten the constitutional law on abortion. Fr. O'Hanlon was one of a small minority of Catholic priests to support Dana's stance. As predicted by her critics, no new referendum to ban abortion completely took place.

Accuses Catholic priests of defeatism

In 2006 O'Hanlon again made the headlines when he attacked his fellow priests as being "defeatist". He wrote in The Irish Catholic that ""From the results of 'The Irish Catholic' survey we seem rather at odds with the teachings of our own Church, above all concerning the very nature of the priesthood itself, but quite consistently in tune with popular opinion on subjects like feminism and ecumenism . . . I am struck by the passivity, almost defeatism of the responses: we can't wait to cut Masses and resign school management. We demand an end to priestly celibacy yet admit getting rid of it would have no noticeable effect on the future of the institution.

Personal attributes

David O'Hanlon is an accomplished concert pianist whose repertoire includes J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, W.A. Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Schubert and Scott Joplin. His last private concert was given at the Chateau de Curzay in France.

In addition to English and Irish, he speaks French, German, Italian, and classical Greek and Latin.



External links

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