Comment: Disentangling Church and State in Ireland

Catherine Maguire 13 May 2013

Any sociologist, or indeed, any individual with “a titter of wit,” as we say back in Ireland, would tell you that nominal Catholics and the real deal are two separate notions. Despite 84% of the Irish people declaring themselves Catholic in a 2011 census, one cannot help but sense a growing apathy among grass-roots adherents. There is perhaps one less Mary smiling at you from a row of windowsills. Following the resignation of Pope Benedict, maybe you just didn’t bother to get dear old Francis framed and hung up on the wall beside the wedding photos. Perhaps you even ordered the filet mignon on Friday night without hesitation. Catholicism in Ireland is undoubtedly a weakening force, its aging hand slowly loosening its grip on the crosier, its mitre blown off by the unforgiving winds of years of hushed-up clerical abuse and corruption. Nonetheless, you might still have to kneel on your hassock for quite some time if you wish for a complete end to Catholic involvement in Irish state affairs. For the Catholic Church has been far from silenced, even if its roar has been reduced to a whisper.

This month, the Church growled once more. In the face of (limited) reforms to the State’s stance on abortion, the All Ireland Primate – Cardinal Sean Brady – threatened Irish TDs who supported such reforms with excommunication. Cardinal Brady’s vociferous stance may come as a surprise to some, following his recent vow of silence after refusing to step down following an outcry over his role in the handling of clerical abuse. In the light of numerous investigations of child sexual abuse, it was discovered that Brady had failed to notify the Garda of complaints against Father Brendan Smyth, Ireland’s most notorious paedophile priest, who consequently abused hundreds of children in a forty-year reign of terror.

Enda Kenny has insisted that he would not be held to ransom by the Church, adding that “my book is the Constitution” and that, as head of the Dail, he had “a duty and responsibility” to legislate in respect of the wishes of the people. However, despite the Irish public’s overwhelming support for amendments to abortion laws, the Taoiseach has also announced that “the law on abortion is not being changed” and that Ireland “will continue to be one of the safest places in the world for childbirth.” Such a labyrinthine relationship between Church and State begs only one portentous question: how far is the Irish state really free from the grips of Catholicism whose teachings find themselves out of kilter with the wishes of the people?

Legally, of course, a referendum in 1972 disrobed the Catholic Church of the privileged position it had once occupied in the Constitution since the establishment of the Free State in 1922. Yet to this day, some 90% of all schools in Ireland are under the patronage of the Catholic Church, and an ACP survey recently found that 80% of Irish Catholics believe that the Church should occupy a larger role with regards to current socioeconomic issues that are plaguing the country. Even the most unobservant of Catholics consider an Ash Wednesday unimaginable without the ritual of “ashing up” (a friend’s words, not mine), even if they do tuck into a ham sandwich the following Friday. I shall never forget being ushered out of a major department store in Donegal at noon on Good Friday before its closure to observe prayers. The overwhelming majority of the country’s elected representatives grew up in an age where the Church was a ferocious guardian of the State. Undoubtedly, their views have been shaped by such an upbringing.

But if the present seems bleak for inhabitants of the island who wish to see reforms made to current abortion legislation, the evidence suggests that the future may well be much brighter. Ireland is a young country, in every sense of the word, with its birth rate soaring above that of any other European Union member state. And with youth, comes progressivity. Even now, the country is beginning to see the first shoots of modernity: an OECD study found that more than a third of children are born outside of wedlock, while the AFP notes that 77% of Irish Catholics support the ordination of female priests. Change, as Sam Cooke would croon, is gonna come.

It may not be soon, but it will come. I just pray that it will not take another Savita for the Irish government to truly act upon the promises of its leader: to act according to the will of the people, not the will of the Church.

Catherine Maguire