Eddie Molloy: When going by the book, the bishops would be advised to look at the Bible
Trying to reduce the abortion rate by putting the fear of God into people is a bankrupt strategy.
CANON 1398 states that a woman who procures an abortion is automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church along with all conspirators, such as the nurses and doctors who assist her. Canon lawyers disagree on whether legislators who enable abortion should also be excommunicated. The Irish bishops are similarly divided, with some seemingly happy to leave the threat of excommunication hanging over the heads of politicians.
Dr Eamon Martin, coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh, deftly avoided being placed in the position of doing the excommunicating, suggesting that anyone who supports abortion in any circumstances thereby excommunicates himself. Even without the 'bell, book and candle' ritual that accompanied excommunication in the Middle Ages, the consequences for politicians will be the same, branding and abuse as a pariah.
The Taoiseach, in responding to the bishops, pointed out that his "book" is the Constitution and that is the book by which he, as head of government, has to operate. In this fraught national debate, I would suggest that there are three books to be consulted, namely the Constitution, the book of Canon Law just cited and the Bible. The latter two are not one and the same.
In Ireland, we have seen the malign influence of Canon Law and associated tomes of moral theology. These sources dominated the system of moral formation of generations of Irish people, a system obsessed with sin, punishment, fear of God and fear of Hell and requiring blind obedience to clerical edicts.
Writing about this moral climate created by the Catholic hierarchy, the eminent theologian Fr Sean Fagan, in an essay entitled Spiritual Abuse, describes its effects: "...There is another abuse (other than child sexual abuse) that has not received the same amount of publicity, but which affects a much greater number of people. It is a moral disease that has affected the church for centuries. It can rightly be described as spiritual abuse. It is no mere disease leaving people uneasy in one or more areas of their lives, but a deep down illness which damaged their emotional and spiritual lives, leaving them with huge burdens of guilt".
This form of catechesis stunted the formation of adult conscience.
The tone and content of recent statements from Rome and some members of the Irish hierarchy constitute a clear continuation of this form of moral leadership, with mention of murder, threats of excommunication and other "incendiary" comments, as TD Sean Sherlock called them.
This strategy does nothing to develop a mature social and religious conscience, which is ultimately the only way to reduce the number of abortions, procured either here in Ireland or in the UK; it has already done more harm than good, only adding to the anguish of women and girls who are in desperate circumstances and alienating them further from anything whatsoever to do with the Catholic Church, including, ironically, its own respected crisis pregnancy agency, Cura. Trying to reduce the number of abortions by seeking to put the fear of God into anyone who supports the impending legislation is a bankrupt strategy.
With regard to the the Catholic bishops' admonition that each person should act according to his or her conscience, first it needs to be said that few Catholic theologians accept any longer the absolutist position that any act – including the killing of an unborn child – is intrinsically evil, regardless of its subjective meaning and actual circumstances. Respect for each person's conscience (including the conscience of politicians who have to legislate for these extremely complex and emotionally loaded situations) which is described in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes as "man's core and sanctuary", is therefore crucial in all of this debate.
Fr Dermot Lane, who teaches at the Mater Dei Institute, and his co-authors of A New Dictionary of Theology have this to say about the sacredness and freedom of conscience: "...the sanctity of conscience is such that ... an individual is obliged to follow his conscience; people will be judged not according to rules they learned by heart, or the views of their parents or ecclesiastical documents or laws from the Bible or even some law in God's mind if it could be read, but according to their own personal conscience, not according to whether they did the objectively wrong thing, but basically according to whether they did what they saw and understood as the right thing".
When the dust has settled on the current debate, the bishops might usefully reflect on their failure over several generations to use their privileged position in Irish society to contribute to the formation of a mature moral ethos.
In the meantime, to find inspiration on how best to proceed right now, some bishops would be well advised to open the third book, the Bible. For example, they might usefully reflect on the story of 'the woman caught in adultery'. The passage describes the confrontation between Jesus and the scribes and pharisees, the religious authorities at the time, who were whipping up a crowd to stone the woman to death. Jesus, showing compassion and forgiveness towards the woman, challenged the scribes and Pharisees, "let any one of you who is without sin cast the first stone", at which they melted away.
No mention here of excommunication, except perhaps of some of the scribes and Pharisees.
Eddie Molloy, PhD, is a management consultant. He is a graduate in philosophy and in theology and his doctoral work centred on the psychological, including moral, development of adults.