Thursday 23 January 2020

Ian O'Doherty: 'The separation of Church and State is a two-way street'

Cheap point: Simon Harris took aim at Christians who find IVF objectionable. Photo: Frank McGrath
Cheap point: Simon Harris took aim at Christians who find IVF objectionable. Photo: Frank McGrath
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

We're a really strange little country at times. 

We tend to go from one set of accepted social rules and then deviate wildly to another, new set of rules while pretending that the old order never actually existed.

The abortion referendum was a good example of that. In 1983, 66.9pc of the population voted against it.

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When we had another referendum, in 2018, 66.4pc voted for it. It's a remarkable statistical flip, showing how the majority of the population, from one decade to the next, will follow the prevailing opinion.

Those stats are also reflected in the way people now look at the Church. There was a time when it was virtually impossible to be a journalist or a politician who was openly anti-Church, but now it seems that is precisely the opposite.

In fact, it's positively de rigueur to now use the Church as an entirely risk-free punching bag. But while we may have done a reverse ferret towards religion, it often seems that we have just swapped one restrictive public dogma for another.

Simon Harris, not content with being arguably the most thoroughly useless Health Minister of recent times, likes to distract voters from his failures. So he knew he was on to a winner when asked about the Facebook post from Tullamore parish objecting to IVF last Sunday.

That argument against IVF was, to outsiders, baffling and, frankly, bonkers.

According to the now retracted piece, IVF is "completely, clearly and totally incompatible with Catholic faith".

It then went into Monty Python territory by stressing that "every embryo is sacred".

Most of us just rolled our eyes and put it down to religious fundamentalism. However, it is also Catholic doctrine and not something that was plucked from the air. Each to their own, and all that.

But Simon was as quick as ever to hop on a passing bandwagon and he immediately said: "The idea that any Christian would find it [IVF] objectionable is something I never understand, that I never comprehend... the comments were...extremely hurtful to many families who are struggling with fertility issues."

As it happens, I agree with Harris. Most of us do. I don't agree with the Tullamore parish. Most of us don't.

But that's not the point - the point is that Catholics are allowed to believe whatever they want as long as they're not trying to force the rest of us to obey their rules.

The reason why so many Irish people have nothing to do with the Church is because of things such as their views on IVF and reproductive matters - but that doesn't mean it's fair for Harris to score a cheap point by having a cynical pop at what is now a minority opinion.

For once, he seemed to know what he was doing - he got plenty of likes on social media and no doubt he felt stunning and brave that he parroted what the majority believe.

There's a terrible cowardice at the heart of Irish pubic life - for instance, some of the journalists who now lead the charge against the Church were very careful to keep their head below the trenches when it was neither profitable nor fashionable to have a pop at the clergy.

These days? It's a happy hunting ground for any hack or politician trying to assert their liberal credentials, and Harris was quick to get out his shotgun.

His position isn't the issue - as I said, I'm on the same page. It was just the cynicism of it all. If there was some Catholic legal lobby desperately trying to prevent non-believers from availing of IVF, then fair enough. But there isn't - they've lost all the battles and they don't even fight most of them anymore.

Yet some of the minister's followers seem to labour under the delusion that they're still fighting the great moral battles of the 1980s and early 1990s. Really, they just want moral licence to be as obnoxious and sneering as they like towards those who still cling to their faith.

Many of us know people who are going through the often hideously gruelling rigours of IVF - therefore we also know that these people have far more important things on their mind than some weird religious objection which doesn't impact them in any way.

One of the great issues when I was growing up in those late 80s/early 90s was the desperate need for separation of Church and State. The Church, back in the day, had actually perfected what we now call the 'cancel culture'. 

I wonder if the minister had been asked for his views about a different faith saying the same thing (and all religions are equally weird when it comes to these matters), just what his response would have been?

I think we all know the answer - it would have a platitude about respecting minority beliefs.

Well, orthodox Catholicism is now a minority belief in this country and while we want the Church to stay away from the State, those members of that Church are entitled to expect the State to return the courtesy - particularly when it's a here today/gone tomorrow minister who often gives the impression that he is more of an Instagram Influencer than a politician.

Roll on the election. 

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