Crozier has now gone the way of the shillelagh

Posted By: May 28, 2018

TP O’Mahony.Irish Examiner. Cork. Monday, May 28, 2018 

TP O’Mahony charts the decline of the power of the Catholic Church, but cautions against a dangerous moral vacuum that may be left in its wake.

The long era of Catholic absolutism, dating all the way back to Catholic Emancipation in 1829, is now well and truly over.

Historians in the future will cite May 25, 2018, as the date on which the crozier was rendered obsolete, taking its place alongside the shillelagh as a cultural artifact.

What we witnessed this weekend was yet another phase in the slow but inexorable process of what Professor Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania has called the “de-Catholicising” of Ireland.

There are, inevitably, losses as well as gains in any such historical process, but it bespeaks a new maturity and

independence of thinking among the young in particular, especially in the sphere of human sexuality.

The Church, and not just in Ireland, has struggled to come to terms with this, and instead of attempting to fashion a new ethic of sexuality, has continued with a rearguard action, unmindful (it seems) of the widespread rejection by millions of Catholic couples of the traditional teachings on contraception and divorce.

Abortion had become the new battleground, and in a society like the USA — where abortion has been legal since the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the Roe v Wade case in 1973 — the Catholic right (which acquired a new boldness during the long and ultra-conservative pontificate of John Paul II) has been to the fore in the ongoing campaign to have that decision repealed.

That’s why the outcome of the Irish referendum was keenly watched from afar because of a defeat for the

Repeal the Eighth campaign here would have been trumpeted as a significant victory, and would undoubtedly have been cited in the States and elsewhere as a justification for redoubling efforts to reverse reform.

What will surprise observers about the Irish situation is the scale of the opposition to the adamantine abortion regime put in place by the insertion of the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution in the 1983 referendum.

It is true that this bitterly divisive campaign (initiated by men), which I covered as religious affairs correspondent of the Irish Press, took place in a very different Ireland. 

For one thing, it was an Ireland where what the late Irish Times columnist John Healy memorably called “halo politics” at the time still worked.

If you were a TD, you could burnish your halo by kowtowing to the bishops and the Catholic right, a pattern of

behavior that was fed by the feverish electoral atmosphere of a society that had to face an extraordinary three

general elections in 18 months in 1981 and 1982.

The uncertainties, nervousness, and fear created by these elections meant that politicians were more susceptible to lobbying and pressure so that from the time when a referendum to insert the Eighth Amendment was mooted they were ready to outdo each other in indulging in “halo politics.”

Thirty-five years on, it is a very different Ireland.

The 1983 referendum took place in the afterglow of the historic visit to Ireland of Pope John Paul II in 1979, where he used his final address in Limerick to urge the Irish people to reject divorce and abortion.

That worked very effectively in the 1983 abortion referendum, and again in the divorce referendum of 1986 when 63.48% of the voters rejected the introduction of divorce in Ireland.

But the winds of change were already discernible in the area of contraception when the Health (Family Planning) Act 1979 was passed in June of that year.

And of course, in June 1996 the Constitution was amended to provide for the dissolution of marriage, following a second divorce referendum.

This time the opposition to the Repeal of the Eighth movement was led by the country’s two senior Catholic clerics, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. 

A chorus of clerical voices joined them, but whereas this would have proved decisive in 1983, in this referendum it proved futile.

There is not, or ought not to be, any resort to triumphalism here.

While this referendum vote displays further evidence of a willingness on the part of Irish Catholics to reclaim the right to think for themselves as far as sexual morality is concerned, and additional evidence that “the power and prestige of the Catholic Church in Ireland has been severely shaken” (to quote from Tom Inglis’ book Moral Monopoly), it is also true that the demise of the Catholic Church as a moral force in Irish society creates a dangerous vacuum.

This is especially worrying in the wider socio-economic sphere where materialism is rampant, and a green variety of Thatcherism holds sway within the political establishment.

The time could hardly be more opportune for a rediscovery of the Social Gospel.