Late last month Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny stood in parliament late last month and openly criticized the Catholic Church over its role in the long running child abuse scandal.
He accused the Vatican of interference in the affairs of a sovereign state. Enda Kenny said the Vatican displayed "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, (and) narcissism." And then to top it all, he continued that "We're fed up with hearing about canon law. This is a Republic, it's about civil law."
This, from the leader of a country once described by Pope Paul VI as "the most Catholic country in the world." The Vatican duly recalled its envoy to Ireland.
To understand the momentous nature of this event, you need to understand the history of Europe. It is one of a constant struggle against the power of the Church. The power of Rome was not only religious, but also political and economic. As nation states arose, the yoke of the Pope's writ increasingly rankled. Individual empires, then nation states tried to break away. Some, like Italy, eventually limited the power of the Pope to the 44 hectares that make up the sovereign Vatican State, as agreed in the Lateran Treaty of 1929.
Other states, like England, Scandinavia and parts of Germany left Catholicism altogether, under the banner of the Reformation. You could say that the US obsession with the separation of Church and State stems from the fact that the Protestant tradition in the US was born from a struggle with a Church that was once more powerful than any state.
The remnant of the temporal power of the Church is now concentrated in the Vatican city and it still wields influence that is vastly disproportionate to its diminutive size. It names cardinals in other countries, its senior priests abroad have diplomatic protection and, we have it from the Irish PM that they can interfere in the affairs of sovereign states.
China's history has taken place outside the historical lands of Christianity and its experience is totally different. China can respect the decision of Europeans to allow the Vatican the kind of leeway it has in their countries.
It's the West's historical baggage and frankly its problem. But China is very much within its rights to question the power of the Vatican state to have sole authority in naming priests in faraway lands.
The Pope, you see, is not just the Vicar of Rome, which is one of his titles. He is also a head of State, with soldiers who carry real guns, a diplomatic corps and a bank. Europeans may choose to see this as quaint, but China is questioning the principle of letting a foreign state dictate to another what happens on its own territory.
The Vatican also has a history of meddling in politics, threatening the excommunication of Catholic politicians who deviated from the party line as late at the 1960s in Belgium and Holland.
The Church is an admirable institution which brings spiritual comfort to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, but it is also a pragmatic one and has adapted and changed itself sometimes beyond recognition over the centuries.
It must recognize that China cannot be expected to adhere unquestioningly to culturally alien rules that it never participated in creating, let alone ones which actually weaken the Church rather than strengthen it.
As the events of Ireland have shown, the Vatican has nothing to gain by antagonizing its host nations. The huge support that the Irish PM received after his tirade has demonstrated how the Irish people have overwhelmingly put their allegiance to their government above that to the Vatican, without being any less Catholic. Institutions evolve and so should the Church.
Why can't the Chinese pick their own bishops, ideally without the interference of any state, whether local or foreign? Excommunicating them was a medieval tool that has no place in 2011 in China or anywhere.
The Vatican should adapt to take into account the potential of such a country as China and its cultural differences.
Otherwise the Church risks being seen as caring more about its own temporal power than the spiritual needs of its Chinese flocks.