When Pope Francis visits Ireland this August, he will find a nation changed beyond recognition since Pope John Paul II visited in 1979. The country that 40 years ago looked like an outpost of traditional Catholic life has seen a spectacular collapse in the faith and an exodus from a scandal-hit Church. The recent landslide vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the constitution, which underpinned the country’s strict abortion law, demonstrated this change in the most dramatic way.

Pope John Paul’s visit saw enormous crowds responding to his charisma, though in retrospect it looks more like the swansong of the old Catholic Ireland than the revival many hoped for at the time. Pope Francis will face a very different environment. The crowds will be large, though on nothing like the scale of 1979. But also, while John Paul enjoyed almost universal deference, Francis – despite his personal popularity – will be loudly admonished by Irish politicians and media for being “behind the times” on sex and gender issues.

Even though Leo Varadkar’s government was keen to get the abortion referendum out of the way before the papal visit, the result has not taken the issue off the table. Instead, it has opened up new questions as the government moves to clarify its proposed legislation.

While answering parliamentary questions on June 12, Varadkar was pressed by the Socialist Party’s Mick Barry to state that under the proposed legislation Catholic hospitals would be required to perform surgical abortions.

Varadkar replied: “The model we intend to follow for the abortion legislation … will allow individuals to opt out based on their consciences or religious convictions but will not allow institutions to do so.

As is the case under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, hospitals such as Holles Street, which has a Catholic voluntary ethos, the Mater, St Vincent’s and others will be required and expected to carry out any procedure that is legal in the state.”

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