Thursday 21 February 2019

Church tries to shake off its scandals with abortion letter

The Catholic bishops' mobilisation of pulpit power against that dreaded eight-lettered word -- abortion -- has reinforced the gut instinct of politicians on both sides of the border to steer well clear of an issue that has been so deeply divisive over the past 25 years.

A strongly-worded pastoral letter distributed yesterday at Masses throughout the Republic and the North reaffirmed the Catholic Church's uncompromising opposition to abortion.

Although it is hardly news-shattering that Catholic bishops have repeated their unwavering pro-life message, what is striking is that their lordships are shaking off the debilitating shackles of the clerical child abuse scandals which seriously damaged their moral authority.

In launching a renewed anti-abortion campaign, the Irish bishops have marched in step with the Bishops of England, Wales and Scotland in authoring the joint pastoral highlighting the sacredness of human life at all stages from the womb to the tomb.

Planned as the centrepiece of the Vatican inspired 'Day for Life' celebration which has been held each October since 2002, this year's pastoral struck a counter-blow against permissive secularist attitudes which they fear are shared by liberal Christians such as the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel and Ossory, Michael Burrows, and like-minded clerics and lay people across the denominational divide.

While the letter was crafted by its episcopal authors in doctrinal language for the Catholic faithful, its unrelentingly hard-hitting message was directed as much to politicians in Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster.

With the new Dail still struggling to settle into routine business, the Fianna Fail-PD-Green Government has been preoccupied with the Taoiseach's evidence to the Mahon Tribunal about his fraught financial affairs, and is attempting to focus attention on the forthcoming Budget against an unsettled economic climate that is of most concern to the electorate.

In the already soured relations between Bertie Ahern and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, a common bond is their distaste for bringing in legislation to allow for abortion in cases where a pregnancy presents a real and substantial threat to the life of the women.

Although Labour's health spokesperson Jan O'Sullivan has urged the Dail and Seanad to face up to its responsibilities, there is little appetite among Dail deputies generally to prove Bishop Burrows wrong in his description of them as showing "systematic spinelessness" in failing to enact legislation in line with the Supreme Court 'X' abortion case.

The outrage felt in grassroots Catholicism over Bishop Burrows' untimely outburst is reflected in The Irish Catholic newspaper's denunciation of his address at the opening of the law term last Monday as "a scandal."

This religiously conservative newspaper, which keeps its holy eyes on the utterances of Dail deputies on moral issues, insists that "there is no appetite for abortion in this country".

This is a view which has been underlined in Stormont by DUP Assembly member Jeffrey Donaldson, who has tabled a motion for debate later this autumn in the Stormont Assembly prohibiting the imposition of the UK's 1967 Abortion act, and he has called on Catholics and Protestants in the North to join together in defence of the unborn and shared Christian values.

This support is forthcoming from the leader of the Irish Catholic Church, Archbishop Sean Brady.

The emergence of a DUP-Catholic bishops alliance in the North to match the traditional closeness of Fianna Fail and the bishops in the Republic means in all probability that abortion is off an all-Ireland agenda for the foreseeable future.

This political reality prevails in spite of the fact that a recent opinion poll showed that 54pc of women in the Republic believe that the Government should act to permit abortion.

Furthermore, this figure rises to 69pc support among women for implementation in law of the 1992 'X' case in favour of allowing abortion where there is a real and substantial risk to the health and life of the mother.

Against this backdrop of a largely male legislature being at odds with the abortion-rights beliefs of a majority of Irish women, it was learned last night that a Church-State row over abortion funding has been looming behind closed doors.

The Catholic bishops are close to concluding a new contract with the State's Crisis Pregnancy Agency (CPA) worth almost €700,000-a-year to its own crisis pregnancy counselling agency, Cura, which is opposed to abortion on grounds of Catholic Church teaching.

But at its meeting behind closed doors last week in Maynooth, the Irish Episcopal Conference mandated its chief negotiator, Bishop John Fleming, not to sign a new funding contract with the State agency unless the church's "absolute" opposition to abortion is respected.

Otherwise, the bishops will appeal to their flock for financial assistance to maintain Cura's services in 16 centres throughout the country.

With the Pro-Life movement well established at the grass-roots level, pressure would inevitably be put on Dail deputies to put the CPA in the dock as a pro-abortion body, which it is not under its remit from the Oireachtas.

In such a climate, the complexities of the abortion issue will be lost sight of.

It is hard to see Bishop Fleming losing.

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