(Rite & Reason, The Irish Times, June 26, 2018)
The big yes vote in the recent referendum on abortion can only be interpreted as a monumental loss for the Catholic Church. Commentators can point to it as conclusive evidence of the decline and fall of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.
The major cultural battles of the past 35 years have been won by the liberal side. The power of the church has been crushed, its long stranglehold on Irish law and public morals consigned to history. Aside from the issue of patronage of church-run schools and hospitals, for all practical purposes the Catholic Church in Ireland can be said to be finally, definitively, defeated.
The yes vote means that when the pope arrives for the World Meeting of Families in August, he will be visiting a modern, secular society free at last from the Roman yoke, one bearing little resemblance to that which welcomed his predecessor so fulsomely 40 years before. The yes vote also makes for a more relaxed papal visit. Secularists won’t see him as a threat. His presence can be safely ignored.
While defeat is painful for the church to take, losing the war is actually a good thing for the church because Christianity functions best when it is not part of the establishment. The cosy coalition between church and state in post-independence Ireland was deeply damaging to both. It gave the church an arrogant air. The church was seen, and saw itself, as the arbiter of truth, and leaders of political parties, industry and the arts doffed their caps to it. Bishops were addressed obsequiously even by trade unionists and top civil servants. But theocracies are always destructive. A healthy church does not require the state to enforce its moral code for it, as the Irish church did. A strong state does not abandon the care of its most vulnerable citizens to private religious institutions, as the Irish state did.
When the church is part of the establishment it loses its moral authority. It becomes an agent of oppression rather than of liberation. It is experienced as stultifying, not life-giving, as suffocating rather than redeeming.
It’s the reason why so many artists and others fled post-independence Ireland, why rebels like Bob Geldof wrote songs excoriating a banana republic patrolled by black and blue uniforms, police and priests. Many regarded the church as a negative force to be avoided rather than a comforter to be sought out.
Now that the culture battles are done, the church can take up its proper role in opposition to the status quo. Pope Francis has said he wants a church that is on the streets, on the margins, with the voiceless, a church that is like a field hospital available to all who are in distress. The church can fulfil this role only when it is without power, only when it is no longer identified as part of the elite. The Irish church can now properly take up this role.
What the culture wars of the last 35 years have also shown is that we Irish are an intolerant people. What characterised church-dominated post-independence Ireland was the intolerance of anything that did not conform to the church’s world view. It was a censorious, bleak, closed-minded, unforgiving society of squinting windows and banned books and hell-fire sermons. Dissent was difficult, difference deemed threatening, a society where even The Irish Times endorsed the 1930s’ clampdown on dances.
Now there is a sense that we have replaced one form of intolerance with another. Just as it was difficult to speak out against the cosy religious, social and moral consensus of 50 years ago, it is difficult to speak out against the dominant cultural mindset of today. Those who urged a no vote in the abortion referendum were excoriated on social media and in the op-ed pages of national newspapers. One side claimed the monopoly on compassion. An alternative viewpoint was declared unacceptable. A new secular judgementalism has replaced the old religious judgmentalism of yesteryear.
A truly liberal, progressive, confident society is one that celebrates diversity and encourages difference. We won’t have made much progress if our shiny new Ireland turns out to be as stifling and oppressive as the one that went before.