Tuesday 20 February 2018

Why Catholic Church is not for turning in the last of the Holy Wars

Michael Kelly on how the battle lines are being drawn in Maynooth

Archbishop Eamon Martin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Archbishop Eamon Martin. Photo: Frank McGrath

The thought of another abortion referendum leads to a collective sigh among senior Church officials at Maynooth. And not because the Church believes that a vote to further liberalise abortion laws is inevitable (it doesn't), but because the hierarchy is reluctant to be dragged down the rabbit hole of yet another Church-State conflict and cast as the villainous 'enemies of progress'.

Most Church people I talk to believe that the promised Citizens' Assembly is little more than a window-dressing exercise to allow politicians to deflect responsibility for a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. Some of the more confident members of the hierarchy - notably Bishop of Elphin Dr Kevin Doran - are saying so publicly. But, despite the machinations around the assembly, most observers expect a referendum sooner rather than later.

From a Church point of view, there is no room for compromise. Catholic teaching is clear that all human life is sacred and worthy of protection from the moment of conception up to natural death. The fact that an unborn child may not live for very long after birth doesn't alter that core value.

While Pope Francis has caused some confusion amongst some of the world's bishops over his fresh approach to cohabiting and same-sex couples, the Pontiff has been dogged in reasserting the Church's unambiguous opposition to abortion, describing terminations as part of a "throwaway culture".

The timing of any referendum will be fascinating. With the usual cautious caveats, Pope Francis is due in Ireland in summer 2018 to celebrate the World Meeting of Families. While no one expects a repeat of 1979 when some 2.5 million people - about two thirds of the population of the Republic at the time - turned out to greet John Paul II, Francis is hugely popular with the faithful. The pro-life cause will have a powerful ally in the Argentine pontiff, who has not been shy about expressing a view on domestic political matters.

But some Irish prelates - privately - will admit that they are reluctant to marshal the Pope to the cause. It goes without saying that the hierarchy is rock solid on the issue of abortion - but there are tensions around the approach to take. All are agreed, however, that this should not be seen as the latest in a long line of - perceived or real - Church-State battles.

Expect the Primate of All-Ireland, the ebullient Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, to be active on the issue. He is a formidable media performer and gave short shrift to any interviewer who questioned his right to speak on the issue of same-sex marriage during last year's referendum.

In Dublin, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin would be more instinctively inclined by temperament to embrace a conciliatory approach. But, the archbishop is acutely aware that there's no middle ground when it comes to abortion and Catholicism - critics will accuse Catholics of backing themselves into a corner on the issue. But, just as one can't be a little bit pregnant, the Church has consistently taught that it is never permissible to permit abortion in any circumstances.

In the context of a referendum, we can expect the bishops to make their points clearly and consistently. But, this will probably be done more by way of pastoral statements rather than participation in contentious debates.

Advisors will be keen to avoid scoring a PR own-goal by handing pro-choice activists the opportunity to paint pro-life opposition to abortion as a throwback to past over-dominance of the Church. In short, they will be reluctant to feed the image of clerics telling people what do to.

We can expect the major running on the issue from the pro-life point of view to be done by laypeople - especially laywomen - and the arguments to be based on human rights rather than religion.

Bishops are likely to stick to where their influence is greatest - the faithful. By western European standards, Mass attendance in Ireland is staggeringly high. Around one third of Irish people report that they attend Mass weekly. The pulpit will become a key battleground in articulating the pro-life position. Likewise with the distribution of statements across the network of more than 1,300 Catholic parishes.

But, while clearly setting forth the Church's point of view, from both a faith-based and human-rights perspective, many bishops will want to stop short of telling Catholics - least of all Catholic politicians - how to vote on such a divisive issue. On this, the hierarchy will find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they will be criticised by liberal Catholics who think the Church should have nothing to say on abortion. At the same time, they'll face a rear-guard action from reactionary elements within the Church who think that threats of excommunication are a credible approach to political debates in the 21st Century. The Church is certainly not itching for a fight over abortion, but as one senior cleric put it to me recently, "some things are just too important not to put up a fight".

Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper


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