Rónán Thomas Mullen, a Catholic and an independent Irish Senator, has been outspoken in defending the right to life of the unborn and opposing same sex marriage. (Photo: www.ronanmullen.ie/)
The dire straits confronting religion in Ireland was recently noted
(and possibly privately celebrated) by the editorial writer of The Irish Times
Membership in the Presbyterian Church had dropped 40 percent since the
1970’s. Average attendance at the Church of Ireland, the largest
Protestant denomination in the island, had shrunk to 15 percent of its
Until recently the Roman Catholic Church had an
unchallenged ascendancy in popular adherence and support. Of late weekly
Mass attendanceonce one of the highest among Catholic populationshas
dropped to 34 percent, while only 17 percent of 18 to 34 year olds
Predictions are that the figures will only
worsen, especially in view of the declining number of priests. Their
ranks were almost halved in the past twenty years, leaving a total of
slightly more than 2000 and with an average age of 65. Only 80 men are
studying for the priesthood, a decline from 526 in 1990.
political developments, such as the passage by over 60 percent of the
electorate of a constitutional amendment last year accepting same sex
marriage, definitely suggests a changed Ireland from the 1980s. Then,
two proposed constitutional amendments, one against abortion and another
allowing divorce, saw the Church position, yes on the first and no on
the second, prevail by majorities exceeding 60 percent.
recent national election in Ireland saw no political party or even
coalition achieving a majority in Dáil Éireann, the parliament. It took
several weeks of negotiations before a government was formed. Fine Gael,
the party that led a coalition with the Labour Party in the previous
ministry, was returned to power, but only with the help of a handful of
unpredictable independents and the abstention in the Dáil vote for a
government by the major opposition partyFianna Fáil.
Gael Party is affiliated with the European People’s Party (Christian
Democrats), but that did not inhibit it, along with its then coalition
partner, the Labour Party, from advancing a same sex marriage amendment
to the constitution last year.
Also, the same government in 2012
withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican (ultimately restored) because of
dissatisfaction with Papal response to alleged clerical child abuse. In
2013 it passed legislation allowing abortion in the case of an expectant
mother threatening suicide. Earlier liberal judicial reading of the
1983 anti-abortion amendment allowed such to be done.
Fine Gael government has not indicated any opposition to demands made
by some of its own members for the actual repeal of that amendment.
the independents included in the new government is the Minister for
Children, a lesbian activist, who, with her wife, legalized their
“marriage” upon the passage of last year’s marriage.
On the whole
the outlook looks glum for any significant attentiveness to Church
views in the immediate future. This will also be the case also on the
question of education.
Eighty to ninety percent of the state
supported elementary schools in Ireland are under the management of the
Catholic Church. Others are under other churches, and a few are “Educate
Together” schools in which comparative religion, rather than
traditional faith formation, is taught.
The Irish constitution
requires that, even in church-managed schools, children, if they or
their parents wish, can be exempt from attending religious classes.
Ordinarily there is no problem.
However, in some urban districts,
especially in the City of Dublin, the failure to build sufficient
number of schools has created a situation whereby some schools don’t
have the capacity to accept all the students in their neighborhood.
Consequently, some priest managers use Baptism as a criterion of
admission. Inevitably some of the growing number of non-Catholics became
Rather than agitate for the construction of more schools
to meet those desirous of being free from “Catholic indoctrination”,
articulate political activists have demanded the removal of church
management from schools and/or the replacement of traditional religious
education with a comparative religion curriculum.
Most people, Catholic or not, don’t have to confront lack of school places, and are not anxious to change things.
the other hand, even in the schools that teach traditional Catholic
faith formation, one fears, especially with the virtual disappearance of
religious as teachers, many of the existing faculty are religiously
indifferent and just go through the motions of training the children for
Holy Communion and later for Confirmation, with minimal in depth
instruction in the Faith or in those sacraments.
Evidence is the
scarce number of children who appear at Mass during the years between
their First Communion and their Confirmation.
But against this
ominous perspective for Irish Catholicism there recently was one bright
development. An outspoken Catholic champion was elected to the upper
house of the Irish legislature, the Seanad, a body whose members are
selected after the national election.
The Seanad has sixty
members: 43 of whom are elected by members of existing local government
councils, the outgoing Seanad, and those newly elected to the other
house in the legislature, Dáil Éireann; eleven are appointed by the
Taoiseach (prime minister); three are elected by the alumni of Trinity
College; and three by the alumni of the National University of Ireland
(which includes among other institutions, University College Dublin and
University College Cork).
Its powers are limited to initiating
and/or revising legislation passed by the popular house, but not money
bills. It cannot permanently delay measures approved by the other body.
Many of its members are either former Dáil members defeated in recent
elections or future aspirants to the Dáil. However, there have been
significant personalities who articulately served, including William
Butler Yeats, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and prominent academics like
Professors John A, Murphy and Joseph Lee, historians from University
Those chosen by the university electorates usually
play very significant roles. For example, two of the three chosen by the
Trinity alumni are incumbents Ivana Bacik, a barrister celebrated for
her advancing the cause of abortion in Ireland, and David Norris, a
Joycean scholar, and Gay activist who ran unsuccessfully for the Irish
presidency in 2012.
The National University alumni selected Alice
Mary Higgins, the daughter of the present Irish president and with
decided liberal views and Michael McDowell, a barrister and former
Minister for Justice, whose views are a mixture of libertarianism and
Their third choice caused the greatest delight
from a Catholic perspective. He was Rónán Mullen, a barrister, who has
already served two terms in the Seanad
He is the essence of
everything that the Irish media and political establishment detest. An
uninhibited champion of Catholic principles, he is outspoken in his
defense of the right to life of the unborn and was one of the few
elected figures who opposed same sex marriage.
provoked an article in leading national newspaper, The Irish Times
trying to explain how an advocate of such unfashionable views could have
been elected by university graduates.
Forty-five years of age, a
native of County Galway, he has a BA in English and French from the
University College Galway, a master’s in journalism from Dublin City
University, and a law degree from the King’s Inn, being called to the
Irish Bar in 2003. He had worked as a teacher, an educational
administrator, and as a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Dublin. When
chosen as an independent member of the Irish parliamentary delegation
to the Council of Europe, he joined the European People’s (or Christian
His electoral success will guarantee at least
the presence of an articulate voice in the Irish legislature for values
currently being forgottenespecially the defence of the right to life
and of the right to educate children in accord with the ethos and values
of their families. Hopefully he will inspire many more Catholics in
Ireland to assert their principles.