The Church must take some responsibility for Ireland’s vote to legalise abortion. I’m not saying the issue is a purely theological one: humanists can also believe in the inalienable right to life. Nor would I want to infantilise the Irish, to suggest they are sheep in need of a strict shepherd. There’s a temptation for foreigners to see Ireland entirely through the prism of Catholicism, as though its identity is defined solely by obedience or disobedience to Mother Church.
All that said, let’s not kid ourselves: Ireland is repudiating Catholic authority. In the run-up to the referendum, a priest in Clogherhead, Co Louth preached during a First Communion Mass against abortion – and parents actually walked out in anger.
The problem is undoubtedly the creep of secularism that has been hidden for decades by the sham of “cultural Catholicism” (people who want the benefits of funerals, weddings and good education without the religious baggage). But, again, the Church has dug its own grave.
It’s widely agreed that prior to the Sixties, the Irish Church could be authoritarian, even cruel. Post-Sixties, it signed up to an establishment liberalism that claimed to be more generous but in fact maintained the same structures of power while eroding moral certainties.
No secularist forced priests to abuse children or have families out of wedlock. No secularist forced the Church to cover these things up. Every scandal contributed to the reckoning whereby when the Church’s authority was finally tested, the people would reject it. In the end, many clerics, perhaps knowing what was coming, chose to stand aside from the abortion referendum altogether. This is the way good so often perishes. Not with a martyrdom but a surrender.
But the Church should not shut up. It should go on and on and on about abortion until they lock us up for it, which they may well do. It’s the right thing for the faith. It’s the right thing for society.
The West is in trouble. I don’t say that with a conservative’s doom and gloom. On the contrary, in many ways we are a more compassionate and Christian society than ever before. I for one would much rather live in an Ireland that doesn’t separate babies from unwed mothers or shames gay people with stigma. But the West is tiptoeing towards both a culture without spirit and a culture that is anti-life.
During the referendum, the pro-choice side constantly brought up “hard cases” that were almost impossible to argue over, such as foetuses with fatal abnormalities. But the bill the Irish government proposed was about much more than that tiny minority of tragedies: it was for abortion on demand up to 12 weeks.
The massive vote in favour – and the public jubilation about something that, I thought, was supposed to be a tragic and entirely private matter – will tell Irish politicians that there’s nothing to be gained from taking a Catholic position and everything to be won by pushing further, faster. The wedge will thicken. Why not abortion on demand up to birth? The attitude taken by campaigners for abortion rights has certainly evolved from “safe, legal and rare” to “it’s none of your business” to, among a few, “it’s a social good.” Euthanasia will be next. That, too, will start with the hard cases, which do exist and for which one has tremendous sympathy. And then it will become involuntary. And then it will become commonplace.
This is the materialist view of man, of life as a product, of humanity as something to be negotiated with. It’s a timeless moral crisis, and in the middle of this history of violence has always stood the Church – challenging the consensus.
It wasn’t always constant; some clerics got things horribly wrong. But the Church was annoying about slavery. A nuisance on totalitarianism. A pain the backside on war. And, now, an embarrassing older relative at the dinner table when it comes to abortion. We have stood in the middle of societies going mad – genocidal, even – and said the same stubborn things that history has eventually acknowledged were right. Human beings are far more likely to return to that kind of Church than one that has compromised in a sad bid to stay relevant.
In the middle of the campaign, I went for a picnic with my godson. He is a one-year-old. His dad and I drank coffee: the boy tried to chew on the flask. The adults pretended to discuss politics, but what he was up to was infinitely more interesting, which is always the way with babies. They can silence a room just by stirring in their cot. In the back of my head, I thought: “I want you to grow up in a society that tries to be good. I want you to know that I did my best.”
That’s the challenge the Church puts to us as individual believers – and, even if we sometimes lose, we have a responsibility to meet it.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and a Catholic Herald contributing editor
This article first appeared in the June 1, 2018 edition of the Catholic Herald