Church and State in Ireland: Improved Relations or Deepened Hostilities?

The positive rhetorical of some political leaders is undermined by push against Catholic schools, hospitals, and pro-life teachings

When 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.

It 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?

So, 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.

But, 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 Iona Institute.

Mr. Quinn cites the example of a law currently going through the DÁil—the lower house of the Irish parliament—which 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.

According 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.

Prime 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 law—which the Government has sought to describe as restrictive—allows 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.”

Pro-lifers emboldened

At 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.

Coadjutor 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”.

“You 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.

However, 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 Catholic Taoiseach.”

“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.

Paradoxically, 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.

Referring to 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 abortion law.

“We can’t let this happen,” she said.

Clashes over Catholic schools

On 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.

Mr. Quinn’s 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.

Mr. 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.”

“There is little sign of any recognition of the importance of preparing our children for the ethical, spiritual and emotional challenges of life,” he said.

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 Church.

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”.

What is being proposed, he said, “requires Catholic schools “to fulfill the State’s duty of catering for children of non-Christian parents”.

“Bizarrely, 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

To understand the complex relationship between Church and State in Ireland it is necessary to look back at the genesis of the modern Irish state.

Much 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 founders.

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.

The first 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 teaching.”

“This decision I, as a Catholic, immediately accepted without hesitation,” he said.

Similar 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”.

He 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 “inclusion”.

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.

“They look 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

Another 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.

“Many 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.

“It is 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 Gospel.

“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.

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About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.