Irish Vote for Divorce Ends Era of Church's Social Dominance

By Farrell, Michael J. | National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 1995 | Go to article overview

Irish Vote for Divorce Ends Era of Church's Social Dominance


Farrell, Michael J., National Catholic Reporter


The Irish voted Nov. 24 to remove the ban on divorce enshrined in their constitution since 1927. The referendum followed a bitter campaign that pitted the main political parties against the Catholic church and divided the overwhelmingly Catholic country in which 2.6 million were eligible to vote. The vote was so close, 50.3 to 49.7, that a recount is probable and a court challenge possible, but observers say the decision is likely to stand.

The significant upheaval, however, was not the advent of legal divorce - Ireland was the only country in Europe to forbid divorce, so the legal writing was probably on the wall - but the abrupt end to an era of domination of Irish social life by the church as represented by its bishops.

During Britain's ruthless occupation of the island, the notorious penal laws decreed, for example, that a priest caught offering Mass would be hanged at the earliest opportunity, often from a nearby tree. The heroism of the clergy during those brutal years won for the church an enduring loyalty in Irish hearts.

This loyalty survived the dramatic changes of the 20th century. It was publicly tested by the Bishop Eamonn Casey affair in 1992, and badly damaged by the succession of child-abuse scandals that continues to unfold to this day.

The pedestal was so high, the Irish bishops had far to fall. The anger and even contempt expressed by the people, especially in the media, is a measure of their disillusionment.

It was widely believed that, thus discredited, the bishops would not throw themselves into this campaign as energetically as in the glory days when they gave people the nod on most moral and social matters and the population generally fell into line.

In such a climate their decision to fight so forcefully seemed tantamount to launching a symbolic battle for the soul of Ireland. Success against divorce would mean recovery of their battered moral authority.

The bishops had precedent on their side. When a previous government tried to legalize divorce in 1986, a big early lead in opinion polls collapsed in the face of episcopal opposition and the measure was defeated 2-to-1. On the earlier occasion, the bishops played not only on spiritual but secular Irish fears, for example, that divorce would mean the fragmentation of Irish farms. In a country where history has rendered the land especially precious, this fear hit home.

The bishops repeated this strategy in 1995. A feature of the recent campaign, however, was the willingness of politicians, who traditionally did not dare oppose the church, to contradict the bishops flatly. Thus the minister for agriculture quickly accused the antidivorce lobby of "misinformation and alarming propaganda," reminding the electorate that the division of farms is already possible under laws governing separation of families. Government ministers, battered by the last referendum, had enacted new laws governing property rights, spousal and child support.

The uneasy underlying truth is that there are such broken families to begin with - an estimated 80,000 people involved in failed marriages, many of them living "in sin" with new partners and children.

Both yes and no sides of the issue repeatedly accused the other of being, at best, careless with, the truth. The antidivorce groups, who were seen to be hand in glove with the bishops, were likely to be given the edge in the truth sweepstakes, but they did not go unchallenged as in the past. When a no group pointed to the corruption allegedly caused in so-called secular nations such as Italy and France, John Bruton's government pointed out that Italy, which allows divorce, has a lower rate of broken marriages than Ireland.

The bishops seem to have been least successful in depicting Ireland as the innocent holy island of movie and song. Ireland is part of the new Europe, the government reminded the people, and not so innocent anymore. The Irish Times editorialized: "There are parts of Dublin and of every Irish city where a child living in a standard nuclear family is now very much the exception: In the last 10 years, the number of Irish babies born outside marriage has almost trebled and now accounts for a fifth of live births.

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