Tuesday 22 January 2019

What do you expect to hear at Mass if not the Gospel?

The Catholic Church is perfectly entitled to broadcast its stance on the Eighth Amendment, writes Maria Steen

CAMPAIGNING: Protesters at a Retain the Eighth marchto. Photo: Caroline Quinn/PA
CAMPAIGNING: Protesters at a Retain the Eighth marchto. Photo: Caroline Quinn/PA

'My hope is for a mature and calm debate in which all views are heard", reads the pinned tweet at the top of Senator Catherine Noone's Twitter page.

But on Easter Sunday, the same senator, who chaired the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, published an ill-judged tweet. She attended Mass at Knock Basilica and complained that "an octogenarian priest took at least three opportunities to preach to us about abortion". Noone continued: "It's no wonder people feel disillusioned with the Catholic Church", and finished with "#HappyEasterSunday #8thRef #TogetherForYes".

The tweet was heavily criticised, as being ageist and condescending, which it was.

Thomas Byrne, the Fianna Fail TD, tweeted: "Senator Noone seems to forget that we have freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of speech and that the separation of Church/State protects religious expression as well as protecting the State. Senator Noone is entitled to make her point, but so is the Church."

Noone deleted her tweet, not because she acknowledged it was wrong, but, as she stated on Twitter, because it was Easter Sunday and she did not need the "negativity".

It seems that even Twitter users thought her intervention was outside the Pale. Many had already taken screenshots of the tweet before it was deleted, and her refusal to acknowledge the validity of the criticisms meant the issue did not die down. Eventually, under considerable pressure, Noone did say "sorry", explaining that she had "over-reached".

Now, this may seem to be a storm in a teacup, but it is revealing nonetheless. Here was a parliamentarian - the impartial chair of a committee considering the issue of abortion - criticising a Catholic priest for articulating Catholic teaching in a Catholic church. That the senator - who is also spokesperson on children - linked the greatest feast of the Catholic calendar with her political objective of legalising abortion was particularly distasteful.

Noone's expectations too were revealing: "When I do go to Mass, I don't expect to be confronted with the issue. Maybe that's naivety on my part."

Later in the same week, another Fine Gael politician, Josepha Madigan - recently appointed to head up Fine Gael's campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment - told the Irish Independent that her support for abortion is not at odds with her faith.

It's hard to guess what Noone expects to hear at Mass, or whether Madigan regards anything as being at odds with her faith, but both seem to have entirely missed the point about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.

It is not that Catholic priests are entitled to express their "view", as Noone put it. They are actually obliged to preach the Gospel. One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity, contained in the Ten Commandments, is "You shall not kill". It really doesn't get any simpler for Christians.

Noone and Madigan should know that no member of the Catholic Church - or indeed any Christian - who subscribes to Christ's doctrine of loving one's neighbour could ever condone violence and deliberate killing.

This is a central belief for Christians that transcends all times and cultures and modern issues because it is an old problem: the vulnerable and weak and defenceless among us need - and deserve - our protection. For Christians, life is a gift from God and no one has the right to take that gift from anyone else.

This is not just something that Christians can subscribe to, but rather something that people of all faiths and none can agree on: the injustice of the deliberate killing of a completely innocent and totally defenceless human being.

In fact, many non-believers, atheists and agnostics who are against abortion are sick and tired of the position being associated with religious people only.

What is proposed by Noone and Madigan, as designed by Simon Harris, is a plan that would see Ireland go from having one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in Europe to one of the most permissive. As Philip Boucher-Hayes said, the change will be a "quantum leap".

The Government's proposal is not about hard cases or abortion "as the last port of call", as Madigan put it, but rather about abortion on demand for three months and effectively on demand until viability. Abortion will be allowed up until birth for babies with a suspected terminal illness. And that is just for starters. As the Taoiseach made very clear when he announced the referendum, if the Eighth is repealed, there can be no certainty about what politicians might do in the future.

Their current proposal goes further than the British law. Abortion is technically not available on demand there, although in practice it happens under the guise of "risk of injury to physical or mental health".

This is backed up by the report of the Oireachtas Committee, which acknowledged that the majority of abortions performed on Irish women in Britain "are for socio-economic reasons". In fact, 95.5pc of Irish women who travelled to Britain for an abortion in 2016 had the procedure under the "health" ground. For 21pc, it was a repeat abortion. Women who avail of socio- economic abortions on health grounds in Britain will simply do the same thing here under our Government's proposed "health" ground.

Of course, we are not being asked to vote on the legislation, bad as it is. Rather, we are being asked to pave the way by first removing from the Constitution the only right that babies enjoy before birth - the right to life itself.

Once that right is gone, anything goes. You don't have to be Catholic to know this is wrong.

Maria Steen works with the Iona Institute think-tank

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