Monday 16 September 2019

Fear, guilt, and more empathy than ever...

The referendum might look like it's traditionalists vs leftie dissenters, but the mainstream will decide, writes Gene Kerrigan

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

The Veritas shop in Abbey Street, Dublin, is a retailer of Catholic publications and paraphernalia. It should be alien territory for a long-time non-believer, but nostalgia brings me there most Christmases, usually to buy some candles.

And it's one reason why I doubt one of the predictions about next year's abortion referendum - the one that says there will be savage conflict between committed Catholics on one side and feminists, liberals and feckless atheists on the other.

That's how some will seek to portray the abortion debate, but that's not how it is.

On the shelves and display cases at Veritas there are books and crucifixes, medallions and ornaments, missals and philosophical tracts. Once, the whole of this country was like that shop, laden with the icons and infrastructure of an insistently Catholic state.

The Veritas shop feels like the Ireland in which I grew up. I have the fondest personal memories of that time, along with clear recollection of a growing awareness that something was very wrong.

Nothing mattered in that Ireland more than obedience to church and state, and that was enforced through fear and guilt. It was a time when individuals could be blackguarded from the pulpit. Teachers could be sacked if their personal lives deviated from the Catholic "ethos".

Catholic traditionalists claim the country was changed for the worse by dissenters and non-believers. That isn't what the record shows.

Courageous people who believed passionately in change raised the issues - but the country was changed by the great mass of mainstream Catholics. These are people who held on to their faith but who wanted to live in the modern world, where religion knows its place. That place is in the hearts of those who believe, not in the law books of the State.

People remained respectful of the Pope, but despite what he said in his encyclicals, Catholics began to choose smaller families, through contraception.

The people eventually overruled the cruelty that dictated that adults could not end a marriage that had failed.

The sneering and fear of homosexuality gave way to respect and marriage equality. The old positions on contraception, divorce and homosexuality went back beyond living memory - they were declared to be fundamental principles, until they changed.

Next year, in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, we are dealing with something quite, quite different.

The Eighth Amendment was never a religious position, but an explicitly political stroke.

Since 1978, contraceptives have been on sale in limited circumstances and there has been talk of divorce. Catholic bishops and activists wondered how they might stop the rot. They needed an issue on which they could win, and they chose abortion.

Abortion was already illegal - there wasn't a snowball's chance that would change. But by inserting an anti-abortion clause in the Constitution they would set up what they believed would be a permanent roadblock.

On top of that, the abortion issue would be an easy win, regaining the initiative for the bishops and Catholic activists.

First Fine Gael, then Fianna Fail, rushed to display their anti-abortion credentials. For fear of being denounced from the pulpit they quickly signed up to the amendment, ready to campaign for it. By 1983, the amendment was in the Constitution.

That victory increased the prestige of the bishops and the Catholic activists, and the more tolerant forces within the church were set back. It's arguable that the boost the traditionalists got from the 1983 Amendment victory helped them win the 1986 referendum on divorce.

That postponed reform for a decade.

This all began to fall apart from 1992, when Bishop Casey's neglectful treatment of his son was exposed.

The subsequent revelations about clerical child abuse took the bishops out of the game. A very small percentage of priests abused children, but a very large percentage of the clergy protected the abusers, to suppress the truth.

The scandals cut the ground from beneath the hierarchy. The great mass of more tolerant mainstream Catholics took the lead.

As the bishops stepped back, Catholic activists such as Senator Ronan Mullen and the Iona Institute came to the fore. They ably, validly represent the traditionalist Catholic view of 40 years ago - now a minority within the church.

Today, Catholic traditionalists attack an imaginary army of "liberal" feminist dissidents who allegedly represent an alien creed, determined to destroy marriage and stamp out Catholicism.

Rather than attacking this imaginary alien army, they really ought to attack their own Catholic mainstream.

It is that mainstream, and its sense of tolerance, that has insisted on its right to trust its own sense of right and wrong, rather than have its beliefs handed down wholesale.

Much easier, of course, to attack an imaginary liberal army than to attack the majority within their own church.

Next year, as the referendum on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment approaches, the loudest voices will be those of two minorities: the liberal/left dissenters on one hand, and the Catholic traditionalists on the other.

In the middle lies the large Catholic mainstream that will decide the result.

They're pretty much like the customers at the Veritas shop.

Some are interested in heavy theological treatises, others are in search of a prayer book, a Rosary or a pretty candle holder. Some are drawn to a church by religious feelings, some by a memory, even a hope.

It's through that sense of tolerance of difference that the Catholic mainstream has embraced change, instead of raging against its own sons and daughters.

The great mass of Catholics is aware it was a bad idea to mix the Constitution and an issue as visceral as abortion.

No one is more wary of overbearing Holy Joe types than the mainstream Catholic.

Like all true believers, mainstream Catholics don't want everyone else to bow and scrape to their beliefs, but they do like their beliefs to be respected.

Most mainstream Catholics are aware of the role of the Eighth Amendment in the death of Savita Halappanavar.

Most mainstream Catholics are aware that the state is happy to constitutionally protect the outsourcing of abortion to the UK, as long as it can claim there are no Irish abortions.

And they are aware of the cruelty in the treatment of women whose babies will never be born to live, but who must suspend their grief through a pointless pregnancy, or seek an abortion in the UK.

For transparency, my own view on abortion is that every woman needs to be able to decide according to individual circumstances. On the amendment, it's clear that a constitutional directive based on a religious edict, contrived as a political stroke, should never have been created.

Politicians are now to be allowed to campaign according to their conscience on the issue of the Eighth Amendment.

Quite right. You wouldn't want anyone making up your mind for you on such a deeply felt issue.

So we enter referendum year with politicians insisting that they must have the freedom to decide how they act on abortion.

Many of them will then seek to deprive every woman in the country of the right to decide that very matter herself.

That's Ireland, 2018 - still shaking off those old fear and guilt feelings, yet blessed with more empathy than ever.

But, seriously, Veritas really does have the best candles.

Sunday Independent

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