Posted By: June 07, 2015

Patrick Murphy. Irish News( Belfast). Saturday, June 6, 2015
ONE of the more unexpected consequences of Irish partition is that organised religion is now stronger in the north than in the south. Recent events on both sides of the border show that while 26 counties have largely moved from Catholic conservatism to post-Catholic secularism, the other six generally remain fixed in, and fixated by, fundamentalist Christianity.

Introduced as a crude device to supposedly divide Catholics from Protestants, the border now reflects Ireland’s internal division between the secular and the sectarian. So what explains this partition of religious influence and what is the likely future for Irish Churches, north and south?

The origins of this current cross-border contrast lie in post-war Ireland. While the north was beginning to benefit from the introduction of the welfare state (despite unionist opposition), successive Dublin governments conceded significant power to the Catholic Church over welfare, health and education.

John Charles McQuaid, Dublin Archbishop from 1940 to 1972, was effectively social affairs and censorship minister in successive Dublin administrations. In the early 1950s, for example, he successfully opposed the government’s Mother and Child Scheme, which proposed free health care for mothers and their children up to the age of 16. State welfare, apparently, represented creeping socialism.

He also opposed other things: women’s athletics; US film star, Jayne Mansfield’s Tralee visit and a friendly football match between Catholic Ireland and communist Yugoslavia in 1955. (The communists won 4-1, presumably because Marx knew more than the Church about football.)

McQuaid rejected ecumenism (although he allowed foreign minister Frank Aiken to attend a Lutheran funeral service for the Queen of Sweden, provided he did so “passively”) and he banned Catholics from attending Trinity College, Dublin. (I will presumably suffer eternal damnation for breaking his ban.)

Meanwhile northern Catholics benefited from the sin of state welfare. (We are all presumably heading to hell for that one. Don’t knock Tory welfare cuts – they may save us from the devil.)

Although many factors combined to support same-sex marriage in the south, a significant influence was opposition to the Church’s traditional role in Irish society, as exemplified by McQuaid.

By forcing the pendulum of Irish social attitudes so firmly to one side, the Church was unable to halt its swing once attitudes began to shift. Its momentum has now carried the pendulum of opinion to the other side. (The same thinghappened in Eastern Europe. There the pendulum’s momentum created by communism allowed it to swing to uncontrolled capitalism.)

Irish society’s swing was additionally energised by the Church’s continued failure to address child abuse and by remaining largely irrelevant following the collapse of the Irish economy. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said after the recent referendum that the Church needs a new language. However, Jesuit Fr Gerry O’Hanlon wrote in The Irish Times this week that Irish Catholics were promised “a structured conversation” within the Church back in 2010. “Where is it?” he asked. He argued for a national assembly of the Church, saying that the laity needs to be empowered.

It appears that some of the laity have not waited to be empowered. They have empowered themselves and walked away. The lonely toll of RTÉ’s Angelus bell is the last reminder of the Church’s former influence.

Meanwhile in the north, the Catholic Church’s social status has also declined, but many of its teachings, for example on homosexuality, retain significant support in society here, due to an informal coalition with fundamentalist Christianity. This explains the Church’s open alignment with aspects of DUP policy, rather than that of Sinn Féin or the SDLP.

It now appears that the depth of religious feeling here recently caused Sinn Féin some hassle on the doorsteps over the party’s policy on abortion. Some would argue that it cost them the Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat. (It will be interesting to see if the same issue surfaces in the next southern election.) By institutionalising inferred religious belief in Stormont’s political system, the north has given religion (or what passes for it) protected status – not quite in the formal manner which de Valera’s constitution afforded the Catholic Church, but in a form of government and politics which emphasises politically aligned religious differences.

This religious profile facilitated the demand for a conscience clause during the “gay cake” debate. There was no similar demand during the same-sex referendum campaign in the south.

The assembly, meanwhile, voted against gay marriage in April, after debating the issue for a fourth time. The North’s pendulum of religious influence appears firmly welded to one side.

Those of a religious disposition might like to get down on their knees and thank God for The Border.