Although for many Americans the word “Irish” collocates with “Catholic,” over the past quarter-century the Emerald Isle has repudiated Catholicism at a disturbing rate. With the possible exception of Quebec in the 1960s, perhaps no traditionally Catholic society has experienced so aggressive an erosion of its faith as Ireland in the 1990s. In a couple months, Ireland may legalize the killing of unborn children on demand through a referendum, which would effectively be the final nail in the coffin of Irish Catholicism.
However, there is real potential for Pope Francis to preclude this nightmare scenario. Will the Holy Father choose to speak up in defense of life in Ireland?
After St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, the Irish were among the world’s most devoutly Catholic nations. During their centuries of oppression by the Protestant British, the Irish clung to their Catholicism as a marker of their identity. In 1946, the future Pope Blessed Paul VI called Ireland the most Catholic country in the world, while in 1979 more than half of the population of the Republic (2.5 million people) flocked to see Pope St. John Paul II during his Irish pilgrimage.
In the 1990s, a toxic combination of scandals involving the clergy and bishops and the economically auspicious years of the “Celtic tiger,” during which many Irish swapped God for Mammon, greatly weakened the Church in Ireland. The effects are quantifiable. Between 1984 and 2013, the proportion of Irish people regularly attending Mass plummeted from nearly 90 to just 18 percent, a more than four-fold decline. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of diocesan seminarians in Ireland shrank from 525 to just 80, a more than six-fold decrease. Once an exporter of priests, today Ireland increasingly relies on priestly imports from Eastern Europe and Africa.
It is an ironic twist of history that for centuries Catholicism was a major trait of Irishness that distinguished the Irish from the British, but whereas today Catholicism in Ireland is in a terminal state the Catholic Church in Britain is experiencing a revival: in Scotland, priestly ordinations have reached a two-decade high, while the situation in England and Wales is equally optimistic.
The de-Christianization of Ireland has had major effects on Irish public policy. In 2015, the Republic of Ireland gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first nation to legalize same-sex “marriage” via referendum. This was not a close call; just 37.93 percent of the Irish voted in favor of morality. The Irish bishops, perhaps fearing an even greater decline of their already vestigial congregations, declined to publicly protest, and one Irish (Catholic, not Church of Ireland) bishop even supported same-sex “marriage.”
Now, another referendum will take place in Ireland, and it is literally a matter of life and death. This month, Ireland’s government has decided that in the referendum on the nation’s abortion law, which will be held in late May, Irish voters will be able to decide on removing the eighth amendment to the constitution, which enshrines the right to life. In the Republic today, abortion is banned, except when a pregnancy threatens the woman’s life. This makes Ireland one of a handful of European countries without legal abortion on demand; the others are Andorra, which has similar laws to Ireland’s; Malta, where abortion is completely banned; and Poland, where abortion is banned except when a pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother, when a pregnancy results from rape or incest, and in the case of “fetal malformation.”
Although, as we have seen, Ireland’s Catholic culture has been falling off a cliff, Irish voters are surprisingly split on the issue. A recent poll shows that while 43 percent of the Irish support abortion on demand in the first trimester, the number of those opposed (35 percent) is not all that much smaller, and 22 percent are undecided. Thus a pro-life victory is not entirely out of the question. What factor could push the Irish closer to choosing life?
Certainly, the Irish bishops should publicly speak out against abortion, rather than playing Neville Chamberlain to secularists as they did in 2015. However, given the fact that the Irish episcopate and clergy have shamed themselves in the eyes of many Irish people since the 1990s, it is unlikely that they could have a decisive effect.
There is, however, one man who could tip the scales in favor of the pro-life movement: Pope Francis. In August, Pope Francis will be travelling to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families. This will be the first papal visit to the island since John Paul’s triumphant pilgrimage thirty-nine years ago. A December 2017 poll shows that 70 percent of the Irish view him positively, making him the most liked world leader in Ireland.
Pope Francis’ popularity in Ireland and the growing excitement about his visit could prevent the Irish from legalizing the slaughter of the unborn. If Ireland’s favorite world leader would publicly implore the Irish to vote in favor of life, then perhaps he could persuade some of the undecided to say “no” to the culture of death. Pope Francis has on many occasions spoken out against the evil of abortion.
This would not be the first time that Pope Francis publicly encouraged a nation to vote in favor of morality. In 2015, he publicly backed a referendum in Slovakia, a country whose Catholic culture is much more intact than Ireland’s, that would ban same-sex “marriage” and adoption.
Ultimately, Slovak voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of morality and tradition, but the referendum was not binding because turnout was too low. However, low turnout should not be an issue in Ireland. In Slovakia, low voter turnout is a general problem; since Slovakia became an independent state in 1993, it has held eight national referenda, and turnout was sufficient for the results to be binding in only one (the 2003 referendum on Slovakia’s entry into the European Union). By contrast, Irish turnout in the 2015 marriage referendum was high.
Today, Ireland faces a crucial decision. In 2015, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin called Ireland’s legalization of same-sex “marriage” a “defeat for humanity.” If the Irish legalize abortion, this will be an even greater defeat for humanity. When it is said that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, this is meant as a metaphor; the “snakes” are actually pagan ways. Certainly, disdain for human life is a pagan trait, as evidenced by the widespread practice of infanticide in ancient Rome or the Aztec human sacrifices before the Christianization of the Americas. Pope Francis has the potential to stop increasingly post-Catholic Ireland from adopting that ugly pagan approach to life, God’s most beautiful gift to us.
Let us pray that Pope Francis will explicitly speak out to the Irish, who overwhelmingly admire him, imploring them to reject what he has called “the throwaway culture” of abortion, and that the Irish will wisely use their gift of freedom to choose Jesus over Barabbas in May.
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