As the jubilant party-goers wandered away from Dublin Castle in the early hours of their new dawn, the true agenda of the Repeal the 8th campaign began to assert itself. Within moments of Ireland’s vote to remove from the constitution the right to life of the unborn, abortion campaigners levelled threats at the North. Marie Stopes expressed interest in opening clinics in Ireland – despite the Yes campaign’s promise that abortion would remain GP-led. And the talk of euthanasia began.
Despite near-total support for abortion in the mainstream press and the aid of big business, from Google to Soros, Yes campaigners still had to do battle with a small band of pro-life campaigners in a series of live television debates. They emerged bruised and resentful, and accused broadcasters of treating them unfairly.
When pro-lifers in Britain watched the debate on RTÉ, moderated by Claire Byrne, they were shocked to witness a discussion of abortion that gave due consideration to both sides. We are so used to seeing debates in which a single pro-life voice must fight to be heard against a panel of opponents whose hostility is shared by both the host and broadcaster. With the RTÉ debate, at last, we saw how convincing pro-life arguments are when they are given a chance to be heard.
But that brief moment of parity has gone now. Ireland’s Yes campaigners are ensuring that they never again have to suffer the discomfort of pro-life arguments. Both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have banned party members from conscience votes or tabling any amendments to the new abortion legislation except through the party health spokesman. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, a vociferous Repeal advocate, has threatened to banish the party’s two remaining pro-life TDs. And in social media and mainstream news outlets, there have been calls for No campaigners to be denied any further public voice.
One of those campaigners is Maria Steen, the barrister and Catholic mother whose searing articulacy in the Claire Byrne debate so rattled her opponents that she was denied any further appearance on RTÉ. She is appalled to see her country democratically voting a human right out of its constitution.
“Modern society prefers choice to everything, even justice,” she reflects. “But what is modern, what is progressive, about killing the child in the womb?”
The vast majority of those who voted Yes were baptised, educated in Catholic schools and attend Mass regularly. “The Church needs to ask herself what has gone wrong here,” Steen says. “How do all of these people not understand that it is wrong to kill, that it is wrong to kill a completely innocent and vulnerable person?”
Many Yes voters who identify as Catholic thought they were retaining a proper Christian abhorrence of murder, while allowing others to do as they wished. They simply did not want to hear about the reality of abortion up to birth and the extent of the killing taking place across Europe and America.
In their naïvety, they also gave even greater licence to political attacks on the Church. Four days after the Yes vote, the Oireachtas passed an education bill in which the Catholic Church was singled out as the only religious group that was not entitled to give preference to its own members when deciding admission to its schools.
For Steen, “that’s blatant sectarianism”. This was a bill designed to protect the education of minority faiths. “The irony is that Catholicism is now a minority faith in this country,” she says.
How can the Irish Church better defend itself? In fact, Steen thinks it should take a step back.
“The Church has been propping up the state in Ireland since its foundation and it has gone on too long,” she says. “The clergy need to retreat from their secular administrative and educational roles and return to where they are needed.
“Benedict XVI talked about a smaller Church. In order for the faith to survive, we need to concentrate on nourishing the faithful. We haven’t been very good at that in Ireland for some time. With the result that those Yes voters who identify as Catholic simply did not have the sufficient formation to understand the gravity of their actions.”
It is sometimes said that Ireland did not undergo the same upheavals as the Church in Britain and America in the wake of Vatican II, and that this is Ireland’s first true moment of dissent from traditional Catholicism.
But Steen disagrees. Ireland is full of ageing clergy who embraced the spirit of Vatican II and ceased to catechise their flock, she argues. However indirectly, their failure to properly form the country’s faithful has resulted in the current Irish embrace of the materialist individualism that has all of Western Europe in its grip. The young people celebrating the Yes vote may have thought that they were throwing over the old Catholic order once and for all, but they were dancing around the pyre of a mere caricature, of a Catholicism that may have existed in the first half of the 20th century but which has long since disappeared.
“This land can no longer be called a Catholic country,” Steen says, suggesting that this is an opportunity for the Irish Church to make a fresh start. “The priests and bishops need to rediscover their vital role in modern society. They need to draw on their apostolic heritage and first act to protect their flock. We are going to see more and more persecutions of Catholics and those who refuse to bow to the liberal orthodoxy and our shepherds need to defend their sheep.”
Steen is precise in her arguments, unshaken by opponents, and compassionate but clear-eyed. “These are dark times. For so long the child in the womb was invisible. But as science has provided us with ever clearer window into the womb and as we understand and see more of the development of the child there seems to be a corresponding push to make abortion free, legal and widespread. Why is that?”
Steen has four children to home-school, so will she now retreat from public life as her opponents wish? “33.6 per cent of voters wanted to retain the Eighth Amendment. That is comparable to the level of support for most popular political parties in this country. So there is hope and a lot of work to do and I won’t be standing down.”
Despite the grave setback last month, Steen remains buoyant. “Jesus didn’t rely on the many. He only needed the few.”
Bonnie Lander Johnson is a writer and academic
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