News Analysis

Wednesday 3 September 2014

A line has been drawn: church can no longer influence laws

John Downing

Published 13/06/2013 | 05:00

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{ When we are given advice or warnings by the authoritative people in the Catholic Church, on matters strictly confined to faith and morals, so long as I am here – and I am sure I speak for my colleagues – I will give to their directions our complete obedience and allegiance." Taoiseach John A Costello, April 12, 1951

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{ I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic Taoiseach. I'm a Taoiseach for all the people." Taoiseach Enda Kenny, June 12, 2013

SIX decades separate the two quotes cited above and comparisons should be treated with some care. That said, Enda Kenny's comments break new ground in unambiguously setting limits on Irish church-state relations.

Mr Kenny's words totally invert the comments of his predecessor and fellow Fine Gael party man, John A Costello, who was speaking after the resignation of his health minister, Noel Browne, over the ill-fated Mother & Child Scheme. That torpedoed scheme would have provided free maternity care for mothers and free medical care for children up to 16 years.

It had been opposed by some of Dr Browne's colleagues because of cost; by doctors who feared loss of income; and by bishops who feared it would undermine church influence in hospitals and eventually pave the way for contraception and abortion.

Mr Costello also said his views on Catholicism were in part based on the total allegiance which the majority of the Irish people gave the church and the fact that it had a specially recognised position in the Constitution, something which was voted out in a referendum in 1972.

The library shelves are full of publications debating the extent of the Catholic Church's influence over successive Irish governments. But it is clear that this influence was at times considerable.

The 20-year wait for legislation based on the 1992 Supreme Court X Case ruling speaks for itself. The old debates which spanned the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, about the availability of contraceptives and the introduction of divorce are equally instructive.

Mr Kenny's comments came just as new legislation providing for minimal availability of abortion in Ireland was about to be cleared by his Cabinet. He was careful to acknowledge the right of the church, just as any other group, to express its views.

But he was telling the bishops in no uncertain terms that they could not dictate the content of this or other legislation.

The Taoiseach's comments echoed his scathing criticism of the Vatican, delivered in the Dail in July 2011, in which he excoriated the attempts to interfere in child abuse investigations in the Diocese of Cloyne. He also moved to reassure his party's traditional Catholic base by citing the list of appalling correspondence and messages relayed to him by a fanatical minority among those campaigning against this forthcoming legislation.

Those letters written in blood, plastic foetuses, and accusations of holocaust proportions are unspeak-able and clearly distressing. But they can also be used to political advantage.

In assessing the Taoiseach's comments yesterday, we must note his provincial, west-of-Ireland origins and his position as leader of Fine Gael, the party of the solid middle class. Any way you look at it, he has taken an important step towards differentiating between state and church.

Irish Independent

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