It might be said that few Irishmen has as much insight into the Second Vatican Council as Father Cremin. But this did not mean preferment. In 1966, Mgr Mitchell stepped down as President of Maynooth to become parish priest of Ballinrobe. Fr Cremin was the senior academic in Maynooth and Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law. The Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Fr Corish, succeeded Mgr Mitchell and he in turn was succeeded by Fr Jeremiah Newman, Professor of Catholic Action and Sociology. Among other things, Fr Newman was active in promoting the admission of lay students to Maynooth in 1966. In his capacity as a sociologist, he also spent sometime living in a hippie commune in California.
A job well done
History is written by the victors. Humanae Vitae was promulgated in 1968 and the Irish hierarchy asked Father Cremin to present it to the Irish media. Television viewers watched Dr Cremin declare:
There you have it, gentlemen - no change.To read David Quinn's piece in The Irish Catholic marking the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, one would think the press conference was a disaster. Immediately after the conference, Professor Cremin asked Archbishop McQuaid's press officer for an appraisal of how he handled the media, and was told he did very well.
It seems controversy developed afterwards when a would-be Labour TD named Conor Cruise-O'Brien initiated a protracted correspondence on the subject in The Irish Times. But how in tune with Irish public opinion was Dr Cruise-O'Brien at the time?
Leaving aside the antics of Mrs Robinson, Mary Kenny and others on a train from Belfast in the 1970s, the criminalisation of contraception was found to be unconstitutional in the Magee judgement in 1973, thanks to the "emanation of a penumbra" school of jurisprudence, enabling the Supreme Court to discover a "right to marital privacy" in de Valera's constitution. So the then Fine Gael liberal, Patrick Cooney, attempted to legislate on the matter in 1975. After a debate, during which the former Fianna Fáil Justice Minister Desmond O'Malley referred to Mr Cooney's Bill as a "licence to fornicate" (I am not making this up), Dáil Éireann was startled to see An Taoiseach, Liam MacCosgair and several Fine Gael TDs walking through the Níl lobby with Fianna Fáil.
In 1979, Charles Haughey was Minister for Health and Social Welfare and he introduced his Family Planning Bill. At the time, the Bill was opposed by a majority of voters in Deputy Haughey's constituency. Mr Haughey's Act has been described as an Irish solution to an Irish problem, as if Serbo-Croatian solutions to Irish problems are somehow more desirable. This allowed contraceptives on to the statute books for the first time since their ban in the 1920s. It was a decisive factor in bringing Pope John Paul II to Ireland on his third foreign trip.
This was the law until Dr FitzGerald and Mr Desmond decided otherwise in 1985. I was outside Leinster House the day Mr Desmond's Bill was debated in the Oireachtas. The climate outside was palpable. Most of the people of Ireland did not want this Bill passed. Mr O'Malley was again on the opposition benches and this time he just couldn't make up his mind, so he abstained. At the division, 83 voted Tá, 80 Níl, with two abstentions - largely a result of the imposition of a three-line whip. This was before the red herring of AIDS was introduced into the equation.
A few years later, Deputy Haughey was Taoiseach and Deputy O'Malley, now leader of the Progressive Democrats, was in his cabinet and AIDS was seen as a burning issue. Mr O'Malley assured the Taoiseach of his party's support for a further relaxation of Mr Desmond's Act. He found that half his party had problems with his liberal stance on the issue - but all this evaporated a few years later when Brendan Howlin succeed Dr John O'Connell as Minister for Health in 1992. It took Ireland nearly a quarter of a century after Humanae Vitae to embrace the contraceptive mentality. And this transition did not come easily. For this reason, I cannot conclude that the 1968 launch of Humanae Vitae was a disaster.
Pipped by Casey
Following the press conference, Fr Cremin had other battles. He was passed over for the episcopacy - notably when Fr Éamonn Casey was made Bishop of Kerry. His Eminence William Cardinal Conway told Mgr Casey that it had taken him four years to convince the Congregation of Bishops that he was a better choice than Dr Cremin. Dr Cremin got the title Monsignor as a consolation prize.
Some rebel seminarists in Maynooth demanded a course on sexual ethics. Mgr Cremin agreed, on the condition he could deliver the course in a language of his choice. Henceforth the lectures and examinations on the subject were exclusively in Latin. But Maynooth had taken a turn for the worse and Mgr Cremin discovered he had to explain matters to Third Divinity students on topics they should have covered in First Divinity, and later, even things that should have been dealt with in school catechesis.
In the late 1970s, he had a series of four articles published in the Irish Independent entitled "What's Wrong with Maynooth?" This was principally an appeal to the hierarchy to do something. The one active element of his career was to assist in the drafting of the 1983 Codex Iuris Canonici, with the special reference to the section on the canon law of marriage. In 1998, he was made a Protonotary Apostolic.
Mgr Cremin's years following his retirement were lonely. A whole folklore about him developed in the college that was quite inconsistent with reality. Clerical students were not encouraged to make a habit of speaking with him, and those who did were rewarded with a reprimand. He did not say the Tridentine Mass, nor even the Novus Ordo in Latin. He said the Novus Ordo Mass in English in the Lady Chapel in Maynooth College Chapel, using Roman vestments and strictly adhering to the rubrics - and he said the Roman canon in a low voice. On one occasion, I served his Mass and reminded myself that the celebrant of the Novus Ordo Mass used water only for the post communion purifications and not wine, as in the old Mass. So I was suprised when he requested wine. He said Mass versus Dominum until the altar in the Lady Chapel was taken back.
He was incredibly well informed about the current situation in the Church. He believed this current crisis to be worse than the Reformation and that the situation was beyond human redemption. He was confident of a glorious revival, though not in his own lifetime. He continued to maintain a broad focus on the world, reading several newspapers regularly, and I remember during a spate of industrial action, his response was to say we neglected the encyclicals on social justice at our peril.
At a more local level, he was critical of the Maynooth authorities' sudden hardening of attitude towards domestic staff in the early 1990s (until then, domestic staff were treated in a manner consistent with Catholic social teaching rather than with contemporary business practice). He retained his interest in sport, but regarded the disproportionate reaction to Ireland's soccer successes in 1988, 1990 and 1994 as symptomatic of deeper problems.
In 1999, he moved out of Maynooth when the college authorities closed the infirmary. This meant that, as his health was deteriorating, he could not rely on medical care as hitherto. Care for retired academic staff was no longer a priority at St Patrick's College, Maynooth. On November 1, 2001 he died in a nursing home in Tralee.
Requiem aeternum dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetuae luceat ei. Anima ejus, et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace. Amen.
The Brandsma Review, Issue 59, March-April 2002