Listening to an interview given by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny to RTÉ News (This Week) at Knock airport in his Mayo constituency, he answered one question with the comment: “I have my own way of speaking to my God”. He had been asked about the Catholic hierarchy’s response to the proposed legislation for limited abortion, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. Cardinal Brady who was visiting the Marian shrine at Knock held out the threat of refusing communion to politicians who supported the bill, saying “that (excommunication) is down the line at the moment as far as we are concerned”. During a national prayer vigil for the right to life of mothers and babies the Catholic Primate of all-Ireland pointed out that the exact legislation that would be introduced was not yet known. “We know what the law is about excommunication, about abortion, that’s a fact. But…the most important issue at this moment is to win the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland to decide with the pro-life“, he said.
On Friday, after a meeting of the hierarchy, Cardinal Brady said the scandal involving clerical child sex abuse did not exempt the bishops from the duty of proclaiming the good news of the gift of life. He also said that while the job of TDs and senators was to legislate, they did not have the “power over life”. In response to the Cardinal’s intervention in the debate, Mr Kenny said “My book is the Constitution, the Constitution is determined by the people, it’s the people’s book.”
As Fr Tony Flannery points out in The Journal, many people in this country no longer follow the teaching of the Catholic Church and it is the task of our politicians to legislate for all citizens. He says Cardinal Brady comes across as “stiff and authoritarian” and the choice of him as a spokesperson for the bishops’ campaign is a big mistake. Another good point he makes is that by coming out so strongly, in such an aggressive and black-and-white way against the proposals, the Catholic hierarchy have effectively ruled themselves out of any real engagement in the process from now on. “They will condemn, and they will lobby individual legislators, but their public position is now fixed and unbending. This is not the way to go about influencing a democratic process“, he says.
So there we have it. The battle lines are being drawn up for what will be a major turning point in church and state relations in Ireland, a debate that is no doubt occupying the minds of many Fine Gael backbenchers are the moment. I think this has been a particularly important weekend which will show the waning influence of the Catholic hierarchy in Irish politics. Added to the previous debates about contraception and divorce and the ongoing discussions about the level of Catholic religious involvement in education, I think we are witnessing a very significant step in the increasing secularisation of the Republic.