Ireland’s vote to repeal the eighth amendment to its constitution was a bleak spectacle to behold. The sight of crowds affecting a carnival atmosphere because the state will no longer “acknowledge the right to life of the unborn” had the air of a cannibalistic fête.
The scale of the result stands in contrast to opinion polls in the UK and United States, where growing majorities, and majorities of women, are turning against unfettered access to abortion and favouring more restrictions on it.
In the campaign which preceded it, practically the whole Irish political and media class, cheered on by the usual cast of vacuous celebrities from Britain and America, united behind the move for repeal. Say ‘YES’, the Irish were told, to women, to progress, to being a ‘liberal’ society. Most of all, say yes to getting rid of the spectre of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
As early as 2015, Amnesty International released a video in which, over images of ruined churches and Celtic crosses, Liam Neeson urges voters to lay to rest “the cruel ghost of the last century.” You don’t have to look far to see what the referendum was really about, at least for the Yes side. Taking an example, yesterday Laura Kennedy, a columnist for the Irish Times, said that “the Catholic church is the most poisonous entity in Irish history… it should have no role in our collective morality.”
Understanding the repeal of the eighth amendment as, at its core, a national rejection of Catholic identity helps, at least in part, to make sense of the morbid celebrations for the repeal of the right to life. Indeed, the reality of what abortion means and entails was hardly spoken of by the repeal campaign. The usual circumlocutions about women’s empowerment and freedom to choose were omnipresent, when absolutely pressed on abortion as a “good thing” there would be the usual invocation of hard cases of rape and incest, but try as you might I could not find a single poster that read “Say Yes to Abortion” or similar. What the country was invited to do, and overwhelmingly did, was say “Yes” to secularism and whatever comes with it.
It was, in short, a national act of apostasy by the Irish people.
Yes, it is true that there was nothing like media parity given to the campaigns. Yes, it is true that tech giants like Google placed an effective blackout on the campaign as soon as the polls looked like they were moving. But the scale of the result puts even these unfair advantages in some perspective.
It was an apostasy the Church in Ireland was nearly powerless to oppose. The hierarchy released statements and bishops spoke publicly, albeit reluctantly against the move to repeal. But they were caught in a trap, knowing full well from “No” campaign data that when fence-sitting voters heard the Church speak out, it moved them to the other side. Social media has been full of almost incomprehensible denunciations of priests who preached in favour of life during the campaign. Such denunciations, even from apparent churchgoers, give a real flavour for how deep and direct the antipathy for the Church in Ireland is, and how much this played into the referendum result.
Of course, this antipathy did not spring up out of the ground. It wasn’t the fruit of some cunning plot by secular political and media interests. It was the direct product of the Church’s scandalous behaviour in Ireland. I know many saintly Irish priests, and as a class I find them to be among the most humble and pastoral clerics you can find. But it cannot be ignored that the abuse scandals which rocked the Irish Church, across entire decades, have managed to turn what was once the most Catholic of countries into a place where the Church is routinely invoked as a public bogeyman.
The scandals were not limited to priests in parishes. They were, at times, systemic in Church-run schools, care homes, orphanages and so on. It was made possible by the privileged place of the Church in Irish society, and the deep institutional involvement of the Church in what were effectively state social services – privileges the Church will probably never be able to hold again. Generations of Irish voters have lived through these revelations. In this context, many feel perfectly justified in reflexively taking the opposite side from the Church on questions of public morality.
If the Irish people apostatised in the vote to repeal the eighth amendment, it was in no small part because they saw their clergy do it first. The extent to which the Church needs to rebuild trust and credibility at the most basic moral level is dauntingly clear and desperately urgent. At the moment, so great is the harm done that the Irish are literally voting to kill their children to spite their fathers.