Whenever the Irish government is criticized, or a politician wishes to divert attention away from themselves or their party, it is fast becoming a default position for them to blame the Catholic Church, an institution that can usefully be identified in order to deflect attention from the real cause, and whose very name can rustle up abuse and blame.  

Let me be clear from the start -- the church has a lot to answer for. Recently, Canada and France joined with Ireland and the U.S. in having to deal with historical sex abuse. 

Another case in point is the Mother and Baby Home scandal here. Last week, the Irish government launched an €800 million redress scheme for an estimated 34,000 survivors that had been sent to these institutions when they became pregnant outside marriage or were born there.

It was a cruel life for these women who should never have been sent away into places run by the church but also, significantly, by the state. They led a regimented life, with many of them suffering emotional abuse in often appalling conditions.

But what needs to be kept to the forefront is that a report into this was clear as to who was primarily to blame. Responsibility for their harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the state, county councils, and the churches. 

For his part, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has apologized on behalf of the government. Archbishop Eamon Martin, speaking for the church, unreservedly apologized to the survivors, as well he should have. The congregations responsible should also pony up significant compensation. 

For Catholics, it was another shameful aspect of their church’s history where standards among some of the clergy and hierarchy fell far below what was expected, but in this instance, they were not alone. 

But for politicians, it was another stick to beat a community of faith with no nuance required.

Take the Irish Labour Party’s education spokesperson Aodhan O’Riordan who, while addressing the assembled delegates at his party’s national conference, reached down into the very core of his indignation and self-righteously roared to all who were listening that he was going to “get them out."  

The “them” he was referring to? The Catholic Church, which he wants to remove from managing schools in Ireland.

O’Riordan and delegates referenced the Mother and Baby report as a reason for this stance, but following that logic, the government should also be disqualified and county managers shouldn’t be allowed within an asses’, or a politician’s, roar of our schools.

But for the Labour Party, no reasoned or rational debate was allowed, the mere mention of the Catholic Church guaranteed to set the liberal left off in raucous condemnation, proving yet again that the only form of bigotry acceptable in Ireland today is being anti-Catholic. 

The irony is that there is room for an informed discussion on this issue. There are influential voices within the church who are calling for a strategic discussion as to whether they should devote so much time, mainly voluntary, to the management and administration of schools, a job surely for government, and concentrate instead on the transfer of their morals and teachings in exclusively Catholic schools. Time to flip that particular debate.

Former minister Richard Bruton was also at it some weeks ago. Prior to the government’s budget, he said that the reason childcare expenditure had been such a low priority over the past few decades was because of the role of the church. He didn’t elaborate or clarify, nor was he asked to.

This is patent nonsense. Some of the more passionate voices for increased support for childcare during that period have been church groups such as the CORI and St. Vincent de Paul. 

In 2012 for instance, when Bruton was in government, a number of Catholic organizations came out both pre- and post-budget to condemn cutbacks in a spending that contained many measures that negatively impacted on childcare and families.

The truth is that what happened was the exact opposite to what Bruton would like us to believe. But why accept personal blame when the church is conveniently available?

Another recent example of this includes a letter sent to the head of the Catholic Church by the minister for the environment the day before a major announcement on housing provision seeking additional church land for social housing.

The inference was clear -- the church has a major responsibility for the housing crisis. A neat conflation of two separate issues to make the church look culpable, a housing and homeless crisis and a past commitment by congregations to divest land.

There was no mention, yet again, of the tremendous work done by Catholic organizations such as the Capuchin Day Center in Dublin, which on a daily basis feeds the homeless, that the government and its policies has failed.  

So what role is there for Catholicism in today’s Ireland? While battered and bruised by the cumulative scandals, the church hasn’t gone away you know. 

The oppressive days of the mid-20th century are gone and not before time. Never again will we see the undue deference to the hierarchy from elected officials or from those in the pews. For many Catholics, the increased distance between church and state is welcomed. 

What is not welcome, though, is the attempt to impose a secular will on the practicing faithful. This includes the threat to outlaw conscientious objections or peaceful opposition to performing abortions, to make it illegal for Catholic schools to seek a baptismal cert before enrollments, to impose a sex education curriculum that entails aspects that go against Catholic teaching, to forbid attendance at Mass, to blame political ills unfairly and unjustly on the church.

The church for its part must find a voice that assertively stands up to those who would do it down while at the same time acknowledging that Ireland is now a diverse country. A new voice that will confidently promote values rooted in Catholic social teaching. A voice that will engage and persuade rather than lecture.

Demagogues, whether in the pulpit or in the public square, are no longer welcome.

*This column first appeared in the November 24 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brother to Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.