Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny receives Communion at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, during a St. Patrick's Day Mass at the cathedral March 17, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
the Irish Government announced in November 2011 that it would close the
Embassy to the Vatican, it marked an all-time low in relations between
the traditionally staunchly Catholic country and the Holy See.
was a far cry from the time when Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini (later
Pope Paul VI) told Irish officials in 1946, “you are the most Catholic
country in the world!”
But, now, less than three years after the
closure, the Government has announced the appointment of a new
ambassador who will shortly take up residence in Rome and present her
credentials to Pope Francis. Emma Madigan will be responsible for
getting relations between Ireland and the Vatican back on an even keel.
A new era?
does the opening of the embassy mark a new era of warmer relations
between Church and State? The country’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny,
certainly thinks so. Speaking in Rome last month after attending the
double canonization ceremony for Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, Mr.
Kenny expressed his view that there now exists a “closer and healthier
relationship between Church and State” following tensions over the
handling of abuse allegations against priests and religious.
is Mr. Kenny’s view backed up by the evidence on the ground? Many
dispute it. “This Government is incredibly hostile towards the Church,”
says David Quinn, Director of the pro-religious freedom think-tank The
Mr. Quinn cites the example of a law currently
going through the DÁilthe lower house of the Irish parliamentwhich
will make it a crime for priests not to breach the seal of confession
and report a penitent who admits to child abuse in the confessional.
to Mr. Quinn the proposal is “an attack on religious freedom, because
for Catholics, access to the sacraments is an absolutely vital and
integral part of their faith.”
“Catholics believe that they have a
divinely ordained right to confess their sins via the sacrament of
confession under an absolute assurance of privacy. They believe that the
State cannot and must not interfere with this right under any
circumstances,” according to Mr. Quinn.
Mr. Quinn also believes
that the law could, in fact, have a detrimental effect. “It will do no
good and may do harm because no child abuser, knowing that a priest is
legally obliged to pass on his crime to the police, will go to
confession in the first place. By effectively barring a child abuser
from attending confession, the State will rob confessors of the
opportunity to persuade offenders to hand themselves over to the civil
authorities,” Mr. Quinn said.
However, despite protests from Catholics and Church leaders, the Government is pressing ahead with the law.
Minister Kenny, a former teacher in a Catholic school, is frequently at
pains to point to his Catholic credentials. However, it was Mr. Kenny
who last year introduced a law permitting abortion in certain
circumstances up to birth. The new lawwhich the Government has sought
to describe as restrictiveallows for abortion where a woman is
experiencing suicidal thoughts without limits.
Caroline Simons, a
legal adviser to the Pro-Life Campaign (PLC) dismissed as “spin”
Government claims that the law is restrictive. “There is nothing
restrictive about the new law. All it takes is for two like-minded
psychiatrists who favor abortion to sign away the life of a baby,” she
said. “It is difficult having to listen to members of the Government
misleading the public by calling it a life-saving measure when they know
it’s nothing of the sort.”
the height of the abortion debate, the issue of Holy Communion for
pro-abortion Catholic politicians took center stage. Most senior
Government ministers who supported the law are self-described Catholics.
Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin was unequivocal when he said that
politicians who “knowingly introduce legislation aiding and abetting
abortion” should not “approach [a priest] looking for communion”.
cannot regard yourself as a person of faith and support abortion,” the
archbishop said. “You cannot believe you are with your Church and
directly help someone to procure an abortion. This includes medical
professionals and the legislators.”
“If a legislator comes to me
and says, ‘can I be a faithful Catholic and support abortion?’ I would
say no. Your communion is ruptured if you support abortion. You are
excommunicating yourself. Any legislator who clearly and publicly states
this should not approach looking for communion, the archbishop said.
Prime Minister Kenny displayed a certain bi-polar trait to his
Catholicism when he said, “I am proud to stand here as a public
representative, as a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic but not a
“A Taoiseach for all of the people, that's my
job. I am proud to lead the Government in governing for all our people,
all our people, all our people, irrespective of the sector of society
that they come from,” he said.
Mr. Kenny went on to expel six members of his Fine Gael party who refused to back abortion.
however, Mr. Kenny’s legislation has emboldened the pro-life community
as never before ahead of key European and local elections due on May 23.
Some 15,000 pro-life supporters attended a Dublin ‘Vigil for Life’ on
May 3rd and heard calls for a new type of politics.
what she described as groupthink in politics and public debate, the
Pro-Life Campaign’s Deputy Chairperson, Cora Sherlock said: “We have to
look for a new kind of politics led by politicians who have a track
record of keeping their word.”
“It is to these courageous members
of the Oireachtas [Parliament],” she said, “who kept their promise and
voted against abortion, that we look to, to rebuild trust in our
politics, not to politicians who voted for abortion and who now, on the
eve of the local and European Elections are trying to pull the wool over
people’s eyes with carefully-timed public interventions seeking to win
back pro-life votes.”
Ms. Sherlock also sees the Government’s
overtures towards the Vatican as linked to the pending election. Mr.
Kenny, she said, “is desperately trying to woo back some pro-life votes
by inviting Pope Francis to Ireland and reopening the Vatican Embassy in
the hope that people will forget about the injustice of the new
“We can’t let this happen,” she said.
Clashes over Catholic schools
the issue of education, there is also little evidence of the “closer
and healthier” Church-State relationship described by Mr. Kenny. His
Education Minister, Ruairí Quinn, recently said that Catholic schools
should no longer allocate time to teach religion.
comments drew a speedy response from the Church who said that not only
do Catholic schools provide for the education of children but do so
respecting the faith and treasured values of parents. “We know in
Ireland that parents will generally wish their children attend schools
that support their own convictions. The Church, and our Constitution,
support this choice," a spokesman for the hierarchy said.
Quinn has been accused by his political opponents of launching the
attack on Catholic schools to deflect from Government funding cuts
affecting school children. Fianna FÁil’s Colm Keaveney accused Mr. Quinn
of indulging in a “deliberate political deflection” from “indefensible”
cuts in school funding.
Mr. Keaveney said the minister’s comments
demonstrate a “shallow understanding of what education is, reducing it
merely to a question of the training of future workers.”
little sign of any recognition of the importance of preparing our
children for the ethical, spiritual and emotional challenges of life,”
Mr. Quinn is also spearheading a campaign that will see
some Catholic schools handed over to a secular patron. While there is
general agreement in the Church that there are too many Catholic schools
for the current demand, Mr. Quinn’s estimate that some 50% of Catholic
schools should change hands drew an angry reaction from parents and the
According to Fr. Michael Drumm, Chairman of the Catholic
Schools Partnership (CSP), the minister is being unrealistic in his
demands. The real issue, according to Fr. Drumm, is that “there is an
insufficient demand for diversity”.
“The pilot survey had very low
participation rates with only about 25-30% of the relevant parents
participating,” Fr. Drumm said. According to Fr. Drumm, only about 30%
of the parents who completed the survey indicated they were in favor of
more school diversity. This number constitutes around 4% to 8% of the
total number of relevant parents.
Minister Quinn has also
expressed the view that remaining Catholic schools should be more
diverse. However, some commentators see this as a veiled attempt to
water down the Catholic ethos. Prof. Eamonn Conway, Head of Religion and
Theology at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick has criticised the
proposal. He accused the Government of “conveying the impression that
currently in Catholic schools inclusion is the exception, rather than
already the norm”. He warned that Catholic schools must be “allowed to
function in accordance with their characteristic spirit”.
being proposed, he said, “requires Catholic schools “to fulfill the
State’s duty of catering for children of non-Christian parents”.
Catholic schools are to be given the impossible task of supporting all
faiths and none, regardless of the impact this will have on their own
characteristic spirit,” Prof. Conway said. The Government “cannot
reasonably expect Christian schools to diminish their own identity and
renege on their mission to provide a formation in the Christian faith
for the children in their care,” he noted.
The historical context
understand the complex relationship between Church and State in Ireland
it is necessary to look back at the genesis of the modern Irish state.
of the latter part of the twentieth century in Ireland has been
punctuated by perceived or real conflicts between Church and State. When
the southern 26 counties of Ireland won independence from Britain in
1922 the desire was to build a self-consciously Catholic idyll. The new
state was to be “Gaelic, Catholic and free” in the rhetoric of the
A wretchedly poor independent Ireland relied heavily on
the Catholic Church for wholesale provision of services like education,
healthcare, and social welfare. The first government adopted a
laissez-faire approach to state engagement more out of economic
necessity rather than ideology. Divorce, which had been legal under
British rule, was soon outlawed, as was contraception.
major row between Church and State festered in the 1950s as the Irish
Government sought to replicate some of the public health innovations
sweeping Europe in the post-World War II era. Minister for Health Noël
Browne proposed the so-called “mother and child scheme”. Part of the
plan was to provide free healthcare for all mothers and healthcare for
children up to the age of sixteen, funded by the taxpayer. The Church
fiercely resisted the plan, seeing it as an unwarranted interference in
the lives of families. The minister duly resigned, telling parliament
that “the Hierarchy has informed the Government that they must regard
the mother and child scheme proposed by me as opposed to Catholic social
“This decision I, as a Catholic, immediately accepted without hesitation,” he said.
controversies followed. However, politicians were increasingly
emboldened to defy the Church. Contraception was legalized in limited
circumstances in 1979. In 1995, a referendum to permit divorce was
narrowly passed by 50.28% to 49.72% despite the move having the support
of all major political parties.
In this context, politicians have
often sought to define themselves as modern and liberal by indulging in
real or created Church-State controversies. However, despite Prime
Minister Kenny’s rhetoric about a “healthier” relationship now, The Iona
Institute’s David Quinn believes people of faith “should be worried”.
insists that the process of privatizing religion has sped up under the
present Government, as has the process of imposing a state-sponsored
ideology on the Church and religious believers.
In relation to
faith-based schools, Mr. Quinn expressed concern that faith formation
was discouraged as was sacramental preparation in school time. The
result of this, he said, is that many “Christian schools are Christian
in name only” and their Catholic ethos was lost as the price of
On marriage and the family, Mr. Quinn insists that
“this is where the Government’s and Enda Kenny’s view of Church and
State comes into clearest focus.” He highlighted that there were
proposals to radically redefine marriage, the family, and parenthood and
that family law reforms were also under consideration.
set to attach no weight at all to having a mother and a father or to
the natural ties,” he warned and added, “Same-sex marriage will put the
tin hat on this.”
He also highlighted that the problem was not the
separation of Church and State so much as the separation of religion
and society. Increasingly, according to Mr. Quinn, the view is being
promoted that religion is a private thing.
Taking a stand
area where it’s hard to see any Government tolerance for people of
faith is in the fact that a law has been passed obliging Catholic
hospitals to provide abortions.
Late last year, Dublin priest Fr.
Kevin Doran resigned from the board of the Mater Hospital after the
Catholic-run institution agreed to comply with the Government’s
controversial abortion law.
“I can’t reconcile my own conscience
personally with the statement,” said Fr. Doran, “largely because I feel a
Catholic hospital has to bear witness.
“It’s about bearing
witness to Gospel values alongside providing excellent care,” Fr. Doran
stated. This week, the Vatican announced that Fr. Doran had been
appointed as the new Bishop of Elphin. His elevation is being seen by
many as a sign that the Vatican wants Irish bishops to be stronger in
their defense of Catholic values and faith-based institutions.
Speaking on his appointment this week, Bishop-elect Doran put the Government on message that the Church would not be silent.
of the services which, traditionally, were provided by the Church as an
expression of communion and solidarity, are now State funded, and to a
greater or lesser extent, State controlled,” he said.
important for us to reflect on the nature and the meaning of these
partnerships between Church and State,” Bishop-elect Doran said before
going on to insist that “our primary reason for being involved in
education, healthcare and social services, is to bear witness to the
“In keeping with that Gospel, there are a number of
principles that should be at the heart of everything we do. These
include a love of preference for the poor, the safeguarding of children,
support for marriage and the family and an unambiguous respect for
human life from its origins to its natural end. We need never apologize
for these,” he said.
Bishop-elect Doran’s unapologetic tone
demonstrates that if Prime Minister Kenny thinks that a “closer and
healthier relationship” means putting the Church in its place, he’ll
have a fight on his hands.