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Is Ireland trying to shake off the shackles of the Catholic Church?

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Is Ireland still a Catholic country?  

It's an interesting and timely question, given the watershed speech in the Dail (Parliament) last week by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny and the much-quoted reference he made to not being a Catholic taoiseach.  

The reference came during a debate on the government's proposed abortion legislation.  The quote got so much coverage -- some of it inaccurate -- it's worth repeating exactly what he said:

"I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, but not as a Catholic taoiseach."   

To an outsider, it might seem like a statement of the obvious.  We are, after all, a republic.  We are governed by the people, not by any church.  A person's religion, even if that person is the taoiseach, should be separate from their politics.  

But we have always been a peculiar kind of Republic.  Our Constitution, introduced by de Valera in 1937, specifically gave the Catholic Church a special and influential place in the formation of Irish laws and Irish society.  And although that special position has now been withdrawn, the resonance here of what used to be called Rome Rule lives on. 

So when Kenny states the obvious, as he did last week, it still feels like some kind of breakthrough.  And it is still welcome for that very reason.

But the fact that it is still characterized in the Irish media as a courageous stance is probably more revealing of us than we realize.  You would not hear Hollande saying something like that in France, for example, even though it's still a substantially Catholic country (note the recent huge opposition to gay marriage there, for example). 

But to be fair to Kenny, he is marking out a line in the sand that none of his predecessors was prepared to lay down.  It's a long way from the crawling behavior of the early generation of our leaders like de Valera, who were always sinking to their knees to kiss the rings of the bishops.  

De Valera referred most of his legislative proposals to the church, usually the malign figure of Archbishop McQuaid, then head of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  

To be fair to de Valera, he was no different than all the politicians of his generation, most of whom would not dream of ignoring the "advice" of the church on proposed legislation and how to run the country.  

This fear of the church bedeviled our politics until very recently.   When the “rebel” Charlie Haughey finally introduced contraception, it was only available to married couples on prescription! 

Even the liberalizing Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald caved in to the bishops and held the pro-life referendum which gave constitutional equality to the life of a mother and that of a fetus, and which got us into the mess on abortion that we are still trying to disentangle.     

The influence and power of the church pervaded all levels of Irish society for decades, in fact for nearly all of the life of the state since its formation in the 1920s.  You don't have to be as old as me to remember what it felt like. 

In rural Ireland where I grew up nothing -- and I mean nothing -- was done without the tacit approval of the local priest.  Holding a dance or running a club or doing virtually anything that brought people, especially young people, together required the imprimatur in advance. 

The image of the local priest out at night with his flashlight and blackthorn stick patrolling the laneways after dances in search of canoodling couples may now be seen as a joke, but it was all too real in the Ireland of the fifties and sixties and even the seventies. 

In retrospect, it seems odd that so few people ever stood up to this intimidation.   But then how could they, when there was no leadership from the top. 

Kenny's line in the sand statement about not being a Catholic taoiseach should be contrasted with what another Fine Gael taoiseach, John A. Costello, told the Dail back in the 1950s:  "I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong." 

So yes, we were a Catholic country, ruled as much by Rome as by our parliament in Dublin.  The question is, are we still one?  

The answer probably is no, but it is a very qualified no in spite of Kenny's statement.  People are now more determined to make up their own minds on issues, rather than be told how to think by the church.  

The recent Irish Times poll showing huge approval for the government's proposals on abortion demonstrates that, despite fierce opposition by the church leaders and the usual hysteria from “pro-life” extremists.

But before we start clapping ourselves on the back, the minimalist extent of the proposed changes on abortion shows just how slowly things are changing here.    

The new legislation will offer very little increased protection for women in crisis situations, and the complexity of the regime will mean that the vast majority of Irish women who want abortions will continue to go to the U.K. to get them. 

One of the interesting things to emerge from the details of the proposed legislation which emerged last week is that medical institutions, unlike the individuals who work in them, will not have the right to opt out of abortion provision on conscience grounds.  

In Ireland, the running of many of our biggest hospitals -- like nearly all of our schools -- is heavily influenced by the church.  In the old days this was total control, but these days it operates through wider boards of management. 

But the element of control and "setting the ethos" is still there, even though the state pays nearly all of the costs of running both hospitals and schools. 

This ludicrous situation evolved because over the years it was the church which raised the funds to set up schools and many hospitals.  The result was that the church gained and held on to control (the patron would be the local priest or bishop) even though the money had actually come from the people.  It will be interesting to see whether the church will attempt to limit the operation of the abortion regime through its influence in the hospitals. 

Overall, the Catholic Church here appears to be fighting a losing battle.   With its credibility totally undermined by the child abuse scandals and a catastrophic fall in weekly church attendance, the battle to keep Ireland as a Catholic country is being lost. 

But the last people to realize this seems to be the Catholic bishops themselves who are still behaving and issuing diktats as though nothing has changed.  

And the extremist Catholic campaigners in the “pro-life” lobby are making things worse for them by alienating the vast majority of people, including people who regard themselves as Catholic, by heckling the Taoiseach and sending bloody plastic fetuses to other politicians, and even issuing death threats.     

The irony of all this is that Kenny is a practicing Catholic and a man who takes his religion very seriously.  Yet he is the one who has been brave enough to make an explicit statement in the Dail making clear the final disconnection of church and state in Ireland. 

It's about time for us.

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