Ireland: Catholicism under siege
Scandal and secular influence have eroded the Emerald Isle’s Catholic culture
On paper, Ireland is still a staunchly Catholic nation.
The Irish constitution begins like a prayer, containing the phrase, “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority.”
The preamble also refers to the Irish nation’s “obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial.”
But in reality, the forces of secularization have eroded the Emerald Isle’s Catholic culture. Less than 20% of adult Catholics attend weekly Mass. The numbers of declared atheists and Irish citizens not identifying with any religious group are exploding.
In May, Irish citizens voted overwhelmingly to amend their nation’s constitution to allow same-sex “marriage,” making Ireland the first country in the world to adopt that change through a popular vote.
A similar campaign is now underway to repeal a pro-life amendment in the constitution — and recent polling indicates that a large majority of Irish citizens are in favor of “significantly widening” access to abortion in Ireland. A nascent effort is also underway to legalize euthanasia.
“The people who run the country — the politicians, senior civil servants, many of those in academia and law — have almost a uniform view that the Catholic Church in Ireland has had undue influence that needs to be repudiated,” said David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, a Dublin-based advocacy organization that promotes the value of marriage and religion in society.
Quinn, a member Legatus’ Dublin Chapter, also explained that the Catholic Church in Ireland has been weakened through a horrific clergy sex abuse scandal and the experience that several generations had of the Church as a heavy-handed, totalitarian institution in the decades after Irish independence.
“There was a backlash against the Church,” Quinn said. “The backlash came, and it has been extremely intense.”
Against that backdrop of increased hostility, Amnesty International recently produced a video entitled “Chains” advocating the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, passed in 1983 to safeguard an unborn child’s right to life.
Irish actor Liam Neeson narrates the short video, which Amnesty International launched in Belfast on Oct. 19. The video begins in black and white and shows the faint outline of a church as Neeson says that Ireland is haunted by “a cruel ghost of the last century” that “blindly brings suffering, even death, to the women whose lives it touches.”
The 90-second video goes on to identity the ghost as one of “paper and ink,” referring to the amendment. The camera pans over the ruins of a church and graveyard with haunting music as Neeson says that Ireland “doesn’t have to be chained to its past.”
Quinn said the video encapsulates the prevailing view that many influential people in Ireland have of the Church.
“It really captures, to a T, the liberal, secular view of the way we were — and that everything associated with the Catholic Church must go,” Quinn said. “We were living in a truly dark period.”
Niamh Uí Bhriain, an Irish pro-life activist and founder of the Dublin-based Life Institute, described the “Chains” video as anti-Catholic propaganda that makes “farcical, untrue” claims that people’s lives are in danger because of the Eighth Amendment.
“It wasn’t about protecting women or repealing something they believe is an unjust law,” Bhriain said. “The whole thing smacked of intolerance, anti-Catholic sentiment, and a disregard to protect unborn babies.”
Bhriain said Ireland has become a “focal point” for the international abortion lobby, with organizations like Amnesty International spending millions of dollars in ads to sway public opinion in favor of liberalizing the country’s abortion laws. Despite the public relations campaign, Bhriain said Ireland’s pro-life culture is still intact and she believes there is not much public support for abortion on demand.
“The polls show only 28 to 35% of Irish people actually want to see abortion legalized as a matter of choice,” she said. “There is still a gap between public sentiment and the public messaging for abortion, despite all the media work and the slick campaigns.”
The strategy of those trying to repeal the Eighth Amendment, Quinn said, is to focus on extreme “hard cases,” such as rape, incest or a mother who receives a poor prenatal diagnosis that her baby will die soon after birth. Irish law currently allows for abortions only when the mother’s life is at risk.
Quinn said polling shows there is public support in Ireland for allowing abortions in certain situations, but that most voters do not support permitting abortion in all circumstances.
“If we can persuade the public that repealing the Eighth Amendment will in short order lead to what amounts to abortion on demand, that gives us our best hope,” Quinn said.
Several Irish Catholic bishops issued pastoral letters and spoke out against the same-sex “marriage” referendum, but for the most part the nation’s Catholic priests and leaders in recent years have been hesitant to speak out from the pulpit.
A major reason for the silence is because the Church in Ireland is still recovering from sex abuse scandals. A 2009 government report found that Irish clergy had sexually and physically abused thousands of children and teenagers in previous decades.
“The scandals were revolting beyond belief, and they understandably caused public distrust,” Quinn explained. “There was already this trend in terms of secularization, but the scandals obviously offered tremendous fuel to the fire.”
Turning the corner
Quinn said the Church in Ireland today “finally has a handle” on the problem and has instituted policies to prevent abuse. He is also hopeful that a new generation of Irish bishops will be able to devote more time to evangelization.
“Ireland has gone from a country where people picked up their Catholic faith almost by osmosis,” Quinn said. “The culture did the work of evangelization. Now, it’s quite the opposite.”
Father Shenan James Boquet, president of Human Life International, said the Church in Ireland is at a crossroads.
“It has been wounded, but it is not beaten. Its people and culture have a rich Catholic soul, which is still beating,” said Fr. Boquet, who traveled to Ireland in September for a 10-day tour with other HLI officials to encourage and strengthen the faithful — and to expose the false and illusory language used by secularizing forces.
During the “Be Not Afraid, Catholic Ireland” tour, Fr. Boquet said he encountered many faithful Catholics, pro-life and family leaders, and groups who are using their apostolates to promote the Catholic faith and to witness to the beauty of the Church’s teachings on life and family.
“There is great hope and strength there,” Fr. Boquet said. “We must never forget that the beautiful faith and grace strengthened in them through the inspiration of St. Patrick didn’t go away. That beautiful seed is still there.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.